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Remembering Apollo: Why KM Is Mission-Critical for NASA

Fifty years ago this week, Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the Moon. This remarkable achievement dominated newspaper headlines and was watched live by 20 percent of the world’s population. It positioned the United States as the winner of the space race and turned the spaceflight’s commander and pilot, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, into household names.

Given the cultural, political, and scientific impact of Apollo, some might think everything anyone wanted to know about this program would be well-documented. But as any knowledge manager knows, it’s all too easy for critical knowledge to be lost. For NASA, even 50-year-old knowledge can be critical, especially when the agency is tasked with replicating something it hasn’t done in decades. Because of this, NASA’s field centers are developing innovative ways to use new technology to surface old knowledge.

For example, in 2015, NASA’s Orion team had a partial failure of the capsule’s uprighting system during a system test. In trying to figure out why the system partially failed, the team needed to review past lessons learned and engineering documents from the similar uprighting system used in the Apollo missions. The enterprise search function at Johnson Space Center (JSC) did not turn up any information, so the team spent months asking retired engineers and NASA’s history officer for information—but they did not have any luck.

Fortunately, the KM office was piloting a new search function that combined semantic, faceted, and cognitive search capabilities. Using this tool, the team was able to surface 200 relevant documents within three hours. It then used the search function’s visualization tools to quickly find the information it needed to solve the problem. “From what the engineer tells me, it saved him a couple years and a couple million dollars,” said David Meza, Chief Knowledge Architect at NASA JSC.

The case for KM at NASA is obvious: if you spend billions of dollars to create one copy of your product, you’d better remember how you made it. NASA performs a lot of work that is never replicated—and could never be replicated—by other organizations. It needs to reuse knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. As Goddard Space Flight Center CKO Edward Rodgers said, “It’s a very high-performance environment where you don’t have a lot of room for errors. … You can’t just run out there and fix something already on orbit.”

Unfortunately, some knowledge of the Apollo missions may be lost forever. As NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory CKO David Oberhettinger explained, “No one thought to keep a copy of the drawing and design data for the gargantuan Saturn 5 rocket that brought us to the moon.” But over the last two decades, NASA’s field centers have developed robust, innovate KM processes and solutions that will help the organization avoid knowledge loss in the future. To learn more about KM at NASA, check out these resources: