Researchers Help NASA Unite Computers, People In Mission Control

April 27, 1998

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Researchers at Ohio State University are helping NASA scientists develop computer systems that communicate important information as flexibly and efficiently as people do.

The study examines how space shuttle flight controllers in NASA mission control in Houston gather important information from computers and from each other. NASA will use the study to design computers that update employees on mission events during shift changes and emergencies. The results may be just as useful in the control rooms of power plants and factories as at NASA.

Right now, flight controllers who come on duty during a mission most typically apprise themselves of the current mission status through face-to-face discussions between the incoming and outgoing shifts. David Woods, professor of industrial and systems engineering, and Emily Patterson, a graduate student, observed shift changes in mission control and discovered that the workers have developed techniques for exchanging information that can’t be mimicked by the average computer.

According to the researchers, updating is especially crucial during emergencies, when off-duty expert personnel are often called in to the control room for assistance.

“One of the reasons we’re studying mission control is that NASA already updates its incoming workers very well,” said Woods. “When anomalies happen on space shuttle missions, mission control is very effective at bringing people in quickly to understand the situation and develop contingency plans to make sure that astronauts will stay safe.”

“We want to understand how NASA does what it does,” Woods continued, “because we think it offers many lessons that will transfer to different settings, like power plants, industrial processes, and air traffic control.” The results of the study appeared in the Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 41st Annual Meeting.

Klaus Christoffersen, another Ohio State graduate student who is working with Woods and Patterson on this project, said that computers must display some form of artificial intelligence to update personnel well.

“Many things NASA people do now will be done by computers in the future. Updates happen effectively between people now, but what’s going to happen when people have to interface with a computer monitor instead of a person? We want to find out what people do during shift changes so that we can endow computers with the same abilities,” said Christoffersen.

Routine mission updates at NASA take place during a one-hour overlap between shifts. The incoming and outgoing flight controllers for each post in the control room meet in that hour to discuss mission status.

The researchers found that off-duty flight controllers begin updating themselves about how a mission is going long before the one-hour overlap between old and new shifts. Periodically they check in to ask about the status of the subsystems they are responsible for. The best way for them to prepare for possible emergencies, it seems, is to maintain an awareness of current and recent mission events, even while they are off duty.

Most surprisingly, the researchers found that incoming and outgoing workers didn’t spend the entire hour of the shift change updating each other. Consistently, incoming workers first reviewed logs of past mission events when they arrived at the control room, and then spent roughly 5 minutes asking the outgoing workers for information. The information exchange during that time was intense, and the incoming workers asked open-ended questions like, “What’s going on?” and “What’s happening with this process?”

These are exactly the kinds of generalized requests that a computer would have a hard time answering.

“A lot of the discussion was about current activities, not just the facts about the mission,” said Woods. “People would say, ‘this event occurred and we don’t know why.’ You won’t get that kind of perspective from a computer that just gives you numbers.” For example, a computer could give an incoming worker a current reading on shuttle cabin pressure, but couldn’t comment on whether the pressure had been fluctuating in an odd way.

Woods said that these results give computer developers a direction for creating electronic logs and other systems that will record events and communicate information to incoming workers in ways that maintain the flexibility and efficiency of human to human exchanges.

Woods characterized shift changes as critical times when incoming workers discover mistakes made during the previous shift, and make mistakes of their own. For that reason, he said good computer support during shift changes is essential in complex, high-risk settings like NASA’s space operations.

Moreover, the researchers believe that as the level of automation in such settings continues to rise, the need for computers to communicate efficiently with people will only grow -- and not just at NASA. Woods added that computerized control rooms in other industries could benefit from NASA’s example by incorporating intelligent computer logs into shift changes.

This work was sponsored by NASA Johnson Space Center and the National Science Foundation.

Ohio State University

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