November 24, 2009 — Vol. 2, Issue 11
The Apollo Lessons Learned Project
"How did we do this during Apollo?" A project at Johnson Space Center identified pertinent Apollo-era documentation and gathered, formatted, and presented it using modern tools for today’s engineers and managers.
(Editor's note: This article is an edited excerpt of Michael Grabois's paper "Apollo: Learning from the Past, for the Future.")
by Michael Grabois
In late 2006, the Constellation Program Manager at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) requested some Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) personnel to form a team with three tasks: to create generic training material on the fundamentals of spaceflight, to turn the old Apollo Mission Techniques documents into lessons on the basics of flying to the Moon and back, and to establish training materials for engineers on the lunar environment. This project should be made available to the NASA community (those behind the NASA Internet firewall) in a distance learning format. The original intent was to focus more on the "what" and "why" than the "how."
The project manager for the "Apollo Lessons Learned" Knowledge Management task, as it came to be known, created a team of volunteers from within MOD, consisting primarily of senior Space Shuttle instructors and flight controllers. Some of the flight controllers were Apollo veterans with first-hand knowledge of Apollo systems. The team members would use their knowledge of Shuttle systems to understand the corresponding Apollo systems, with topics such as electrical and environmental control systems, engines and propulsion, rendezvous, communications, extra-vehicular activities (EVA) and lunar surface operations, and guidance/navigation/control (GNC).
In most cases, the Apollo mission reports and handbooks were written between 1965 and 1975, and the original authors frequently left "lessons learned" sections in their reports for future engineers and designers. However, there was no follow-up planned, and limited effort had been made since the creation of the documents to assemble a comprehensive archive of these lessons.
Nevertheless, the documents contained information on the problems and limitations of the hardware, software, and techniques that needed to be brought out. The Project sought to determine how these limitations drove mission technique design.
The Apollo Lessons Learned project was designed to be an Internet-based distance-learning experience, but behind a NASA firewall such that users could only access the web site from any NASA facility and authorized contractor sites across the United States.
The target student was defined as someone who is technical and familiar with the space program, most likely a veteran of the Shuttle program who wants more information on Apollo techniques and systems. The typical student could be either an engineer or a manager.
The members of the Apollo Lessons Learned team were assigned various systems briefings and mission technique briefings depending on their background. The original documents were written by and for knowledgeable insiders, with many unwritten assumptions including that the reader reasonably understands the systems and techniques being discussed.
The team members used their knowledge of similar or analogous Space Shuttle systems to summarize the appropriate material and create text-based wiki entries, in as much detail as was necessary for a full understanding of the material, and then create video lessons at an overview level with less technical presentation. Meanwhile, other team members focused their attention on major operational steps of flight such as Mission Techniques files.
The use of Shuttle instructors from MOD's Space Flight Training section was greatly beneficial to the project, as they had experience distilling information from technical documents into a lesson briefing for their students (i.e., astronaut crews), and were generally comfortable presenting their lesson on camera. The rule of thumb was to try to make the video lesson briefings less than approximately 40 minutes. Those with material that could not be edited down broke their lessons into two smaller parts for easier viewing.
As the instructors created their wiki pages and video lessons, other topics presented themselves as candidates for expansion into a separate lesson (e.g., a case study of the Apollo 13 accident grew out of separate discussions of the electrical power systems of the Lunar Module and Command/Service Module). The Project Manager kept track of schedules and which lessons were complete via a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. A certain number of lessons (which included the wiki and video briefings) were required by the end of each fiscal year, with several ranked by the Project Manager as higher priority than others, but the team members generally had the freedom to create their topics as they saw fit.
As the project progressed, the scope of the overall content of the project slowly increased. One element of the original three-prong task — to turn old Apollo Mission Techniques documents into lessons on the basics of flying to the Moon and back — had grown to encompass systems-level lessons as well, with the understanding that it was not possible to explain many techniques without first explaining how the underlying hardware and software works.
Periodically, the Project Manager submitted an announcement in the "JSC Today" daily e-mail sent to all JSC employees explaining the project and inviting users to visit the web site. With exposure to the NASA community outside of the project, other groups volunteered to share their Moon-related documents with the Apollo Lessons Learned project to further the project’s mandate. The video developers recorded a series of briefings by Moon experts from various institutions (including NASA's Johnson Space Center, The Lunar and Planetary Institute, The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and others affiliated with the Constellation Lunar Surface Systems Project Office) called “Moon 101”, with topics ranging from the physiography and geology of the Moon to lunar meteorites, and after processing them through Microsoft Producer, incorporated them into the Apollo Lessons Learned material.
Similarly, MOD's Flight Design and Dynamics Department offered their previously-recorded briefings on Apollo GNC and mission techniques such as launch window determination, lunar rendezvous, lunar orbit navigation, and powered descent. These, too, were processed through Producer and made available via links on the web site.
Approximately 40 people were involved in the creation of the material that makes up the website "Apollo: Learning From the Past, For the Future." The original three-pronged mandate for this project has been successfully fulfilled:
- The fundamentals of spaceflight is a main topic on the Apollo Training Materials page.
- The old Apollo Mission Techniques documents, as well as the technical documents on the various spacecraft systems, have been turned into lessons on the basics of flying to the Moon and back. The team created 47 video lessons with a total running time of over 26 hours, and produced 345 pages of content in the wiki.
- Training materials for engineers on the lunar environment have been established, starting with video lessons by lunar experts from the greater NASA community. The lunar expert briefings and Flight Design lessons contributed another 18 lessons lasting nearly 17 hours.
Read the full text of Michael Grabois's paper "Apollo: Learning from the Past, for the Future." (PDF)