NASA Plans Knowledge Database

WASHINGTON (04/18/2000) - In the wake of the Mars Polar Lander crash and recent space shuttle malfunctions, NASA is establishing a knowledge management team and plans a "lessons-learned database" it hopes will head off such disasters in the future.

Lee Holcomb, the space agency's chief information officer, said the team is expected to discover better ways to sort through the massive amounts of data NASA accumulates and make critical knowledge available to NASA scientists.

Holcomb envisions computer systems that can identify important knowledge as engineers create it in design programs or discuss it in electronic memos, then automatically whisk copies into a NASA knowledge repository where it can be accessed for future use.

The space agency's effectiveness in the future will depend on its ability "to capture knowledge and bring it forward," Holcomb said April 13 during an interview at a knowledge management conference.

Typically, knowledge such as a spacecraft's design is exhaustively documented and carefully stored. But more elusive knowledge, such as how a project team works together successfully, is not, he said. The disastrous Mars mission and unsettling wiring problems with the space shuttle illustrate the importance of retaining and making better use of that sort of knowledge, he said.

The Mars lander, which apparently was destroyed when it crashed into the planet's surface, failed in part because knowledge gained from the earlier, highly successful Mars Pathfinder mission was not transferred, he said. A program manager retired, the Pathfinder team was broken up and critical knowledge was lost.

Similarly, Holcomb said, wiring problems that caused two malfunctions that threatened a recent space shuttle mission, were traced, in part, to failures to use knowledge NASA had gained over years of experience in the space shuttle program.

In addition to storing knowledge, the new knowledge management team must develop better ways to "filter it" so scientists can "locate what they need and not be overwhelmed," he said.

Knowledge management, a relatively new business management concept, is slowly making inroads into government. Getting middle managers to accept its value is a major challenge, Holcomb said.

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