Why is NASA based in Houston

NASA's Mission Control Center: the coolest workplace in the world

Reading time: 5 minutes

Exercise bike, day-night-rhythm light, and satellite streams from space ... Paul Sean Hill, former head of mission operations at NASA Space Center in Houston, explains how the space agency set up a truly galactic office and that too Has picked up on the trend towards flexible working.

 

What does NASA's Mission Control Center look like?

Similar to an emergency call center or an air traffic control center. There are around 20 tables, each with multiple computer monitors, and a large screen in the front of the room that shows overview data for the entire team. As you may have seen in the film, there are several clocks on the wall above that show all possible times, from the current local time to the time of the next satellite transmission from the spaceship. Almost everything we do has either a countdown to the start or a counter that tells how long we've been doing it.

What are the most surprising things about visitors?

The visitors are always very excited when they come into the auditorium and see the large world map on the main screen with the exact position of the spacecraft. In addition to the map, indoor and outdoor shots of the spaceship are shown on a large monitor. The visitors stare at it as if spellbound and each time someone asks: “Is this real? Is this really happening right now? ”The answer is always:“ Yes, this is really happening right now, 400 kilometers above the earth, on the other side of the globe. ”

The structure of the control center is legendary. How well thought out is the arrangement?

Sixty years ago, in the early days of space travel, the seating arrangement still played an important role. The respective specialist groups sat together because this way they could compare their records more easily. With today's computer equipment, this is no longer so important. All you have to do is stay in the same room or use systems that allow you to virtually face each other and exchange data regardless of where you are.

NASA's flight control center in 1964

 

Can employees work from home or at flexible hours?

New technologies allow a certain amount of flexibility. There are systems that employees can use to log in from outside. So if you are not steering the spaceship, but are evaluating data or preparing presentations, for example, there is no valid reason why you should be in the control center. In addition, the option to work from home every other Friday has been introduced. We handle this individually: If an employee has completed his workload of 80 hours per accounting period in nine days instead of ten, he can take the rest of the day off if there is not an important meeting. That had a huge impact on the team's morale. Flexible working hours therefore benefit us if they are used wisely.

How ergonomic are the workplaces?

Even at the risk of stepping on some of my predecessors: In the first 40 to 50 years of our existence, many human aspects were of secondary importance and the focus was entirely on the technical side. Uncomfortable chairs, sitting postures and keyboard positions were the order of the day. Over the past decade we've learned that we have to take this more seriously. So around 2011 we started to completely change everything.

How many of these changes were initiated by employee feedback?

That came very gradually. At first there weren't many complaints because the employees didn't know anything else. If someone complained about the chairs or the light, the managers just rolled their eyes and said, “Yes, yes. We flew to the moon with this light. Shut up and do your job. "

But over the years studies have shown the importance of good ergonomics. NASA's in-house doctors told us that there was a direct connection between lighting in the workplace and the mood of our employees. Ultimately, we found that we could significantly improve ergonomics and the workplaces themselves without impacting costs. The newly purchased off-the-shelf computer desks were even cheaper than the government-issued work consoles we had before.

Paul Sean Hill, former head of mission operations at NASA Space Center in Houston, Texas

 

NASA employees often work ten hours in an office with no windows. How do you keep your people healthy?

We work in a large, windowless building because it makes it easier to keep the computers cool - but that means there is no daylight. We have chosen the strength, color and type of our artificial lighting accordingly. It has the additional advantage that it supports the biorhythm of the employees. This makes it easier for them to sleep when they go to work at times when they would normally not go to bed.

Our doctors also recommend that employees walk around during working hours. Just two to five minutes an hour can have a significant long-term impact on health. In addition, we have set up a fitness room with several bicycles and treadmills in the Mission Control Center so that employees can move around more during breaks if they want.

Is there a dress code in the office?

Yes and no. I was rather conservative and as a flight director I always wore a tie. In the last 20 years, however, the dress code has loosened up a bit. Since we are now manned around the clock, it is not uncommon for employees, especially on the night shift, to be dressed a little more casually. But it should be business casual. Our external image is very important to us. People should see that we are working professionally and in a focused manner.

What are your best tips for effective teamwork?

First, interaction is essential. At NASA, great importance is attached to the exchange between employees at all levels, both up and down. It is important that everyone has the feeling that they can talk to each other about their work - to pass on knowledge and get support from colleagues, whether in person or virtually.

Second, and there is a connection with the first point, it is important that everyone strives for 100% transparency. When information is withheld, it is a warning sign of a lack of trust on your team. If there was a problem in the Mission Control Center, no matter what part of the organization, we wanted the leadership team to know about it immediately. It sounds like we checked every minute detail, but it turned out to be very effective for us. By addressing problems immediately, no matter how small, we could get the situation under control more easily. As a result, we spent half of our working time in management meetings, which resulted in significantly better decisions and better overall management of the organization.

Third, encourage everyone on your team to come up with suggestions for improvement. Many don't complain when something isn't working right because they don't want to get noticed for the wrong reasons. We have found that nothing is as valuable - both to the well-being of the organization and that of our employees - as listening to our teams.

What can civilians learn from the Mission Control Center?

The most important lesson is not to cling to old habits forever. For far too long we have used very expensive equipment that was not as good as it could have been because the office had been furnished that way at some point. It sounds crazy considering what we're working on all day, but it took us a long time to move from our old PCs and software programs to the latest technology. Making the move was the best decision we could make.

 


Mission Control Management by Paul Sean Hill is published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

The interview with Hill was conducted by the British journalist Etan Smallman.