Here’s how an ANU business professor helped NASA manage its most ambitious mission yet

A full moon over Artemis in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston A full moon over Artemis in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston

People frequently think space and astronomy are the same. Because the planets and stars don’t seem to have much to do with their day-to-day, people also assume space does not affect them. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We rely on space and space data daily for critical communication, environmental and navigational information, and that will only continue to grow.

As we become more dependent on space, more and more people from business, law, communications and many more disciplines not commonly associated with space will join the space industry. They may work for companies focusing on launch, satellites and data alongside engineers, astronomers, physicists, and other scientists, and their non-scientific expertise will be just as valuable.

At the Australian National University, we already have a great example of how business systems can change the space industry and the business of space. Professor Ofer Zwikael of the Research School of Management in the ANU College of Business and Economics co-wrote a paper that changed how NASA manages scheduling for its Space Launch System (SLS), which powers the Artemis missions to get humans back to the moon. We asked him to tell us his story of how business and space need each other:

 

Tell us about Earned Value Management and how your idea of Earned Schedule helps project performance.

When organisations such as NASA invest in and manage complex and ambitious projects, in addition to meeting the huge technological challenges, they also want to ensure these projects are completed on schedule and within budget. For this purpose, for many decades, NASA has used a methodology developed by the US Department of Defence, called Earned Value Management.

This methodology provides an analysis of the project’s progress and a regular ‘health check’ in these two key dimensions – cost and schedule. Based on this analysis, the methodology can also provide a prediction for the project’s final cost and completion date. It allows organisations to introduce corrective actions early if the project is not progressing as anticipated.

In a paper published in 2009, we highlighted the great benefits of this methodology for monitoring the cost performance of a project but at the same time discussed some major limitations with the accuracy of its schedule monitoring model. In the same paper, we also proposed, validated and illustrated a new model called Earned Schedule, which is an extension of the Earned Value for project schedule monitoring.

The benefit of Earned Schedule is that no further data needs to be collected. Rather a more advanced analysis of the same information provides a better understanding of the project’s schedule performance.

Using Earned Schedule, NASA could analyse the progress of their SLS projects, which are managed both internally and by sub-contractors. Earned Schedule could then raise early red flags by identifying projects that may not be completed on time. Understanding what projects may not meet their intended schedule at their early stages allows NASA to introduce corrective actions, add resources to late project tasks, change project scope, amend the contract, or even terminate projects early if needed.

 

Your co-author was contacted by the chief scheduler for the NASA SLS. What happened next?

Walt Lipke was contacted by NASA with a request to make changes to the Earned Value calculator, which is free to use. The calculator can be used during each project monitoring period (e.g. monthly) to analyse the data on project progress to date. The calculator only allows for up to 50 monitoring periods during the project, which fits most projects. However, NASA’s projects are longer and more complex, requiring more monitoring milestones. Walt has made changes to the calculator to allow NASA to use 200 monitoring periods for their SLS projects.

In an email, Mr. Keith Heitzman, the Chief Scheduler for the NASA Space Launch System (SLS), said: ‘Earned Schedule has helped us identify very unrealistic contractor schedules and accurately predict completion dates.’

 

SLS is a massive project. So many people and companies are working to build these rockets, and they are designed to evolve for different kinds of missions in the future. What’s your reaction to knowing that your work played a small but very valuable role in this process and may continue to help humans get to the moon for years to come?

As a scholar, it is a great feeling to learn that your research has been implemented successfully to make a positive impact on organisations and society. In particular, making a contribution to the exploration of space to advance humanity is a great cause. This exploration involves a huge level of uncertainty and is an extreme challenge not seen in other projects. It is not a surprise that NASA is using advanced project management tools to improve their decision-making capabilities under uncertainty. On a personal level, I look forward to NASA’s success in the upcoming space missions and the innovative and complex projects supporting these missions.

You can read Professor Ofer Zwikael’s co-authored paper here.

Contacts

Kathleen Sweetapple
Contact email:inspace@anu.edu.au
Contact phone:02 6125 0065