Stevens Deans’ Seminar Series Hosts Astronaut William Shepherd

5/21/2012

Lessons about managing diverse technical cultures to bring a complex system together was the topic of discussion in Babbio Center on Monday, as Stevens hosted special guest William Shepherd, a retired U.S. Navy Captain.

Shepherd’s talk was part of the Deans’ Seminar Series, a bi-annual lecture featuring distinguished speakers organized jointly by the School of Systems and Engineering (SSE) and the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science (SES) and hosted by Deans Dinesh Verma and Michael Bruno, respectively.

In his 30-year Navy career, Shepherd has been a program manager, systems engineer, Navy SEAL and astronaut. He flew three missions on the U.S. Space Shuttle and flew on the International Space Station (ISS), a habitable orbiting outpost developed by five space agencies for scientific research, space exploration and educational purposes.

In the early 1990s, Shepherd led a 12,000-person team in the technical, management and operational details of the 17-nation effort to develop the ISS. In 2000, he commanded the first flight crew to ISS, a joint U.S.-Russian team known as “Expedition One,” on a 141-day mission to begin permanent human operations aboard the ISS.

Shepherd’s efforts have earned him numerous national accolades, including the Congressional Space Medal of Honor from President George W. Bush and the Collier Trophy, awarded to the ISS program, which recognizes the nation’s greatest achievements in aviation and astronautics.

Shepherd focused his speech, “Technical Cultures of the Space Program,” on the challenges he encountered while collaborating with technical teams from diverse cultures in running international space programs – especially the U.S. and Russia.

One key difference he described was the Russian’s ability to keep things simple.

“When the Russians create something that is simple and robust – and it works – they don’t change it,” said Shepherd.

The Russians still use 1955 telephone technology in some of their instrumentation, for example. In addition, the ISS chose to integrate the Russian’s minimalistic space toilet after a failed ten-year, multi-million dollar effort to create something better.

By contrast, the U.S. is often inhibited by over-complexity in its technologies and products, with its historic space suit – which took 80 people to reassemble after use – as a great example.

The point, Shepherd said, is that different is often good when it comes to complex scientific and engineering challenges.

“The Russians have different approaches to solving problems that we can and have learned from,” he said.

Shepherd said one significant cultural issue he encountered throughout his career was an overreliance on numbers. He described an incident when he was working in mission control as a capsule communicator talking to astronauts in flight and a computer signal indicated that a cooling systems pump had failed. That would have been a very dangerous situation, but it turned out the computer was wrong.

“Our faith in numbers is something we constantly have to be careful of, and it’s becoming more and more pervasive in our advanced technical society,” he said. “We can’t lose our ability to look deep and think deep.” 

Managing change is another element of technical culture that Shepherd said is incredibly important.

“Look at all of the big U.S. space program failures, and at the root is almost always a fundamental error in the way a large group of people manage technical change,” he said.

Shepherd – who also showed a video of himself and a flight crew training and embarking on a mission – said the lessons on technical culture that he described are not “space-specific” – they can apply to transportation systems, flying airplanes, running boats up the river, and much more.

He concluded the lecture by expressing his awe for the technical excellence the space program requires.

“This is some of best stuff that we do,” he said. “You need excellent materials, excellent education, excellent technicians, excellent training, excellent processes, excellent testing, excellent operations, etc. Excellence if part of everything we do or we’re going to have big trouble. It is one of the few things we do routinely that has such a demand for this level of performance.”

Photo caption: Captain Bill Shepherd (second from right) is joined at Stevens by Deans Dinesh Verma and Michael Bruno (far right), Debra Facktor Lepore, and Bill Rouse (far left).