NASA EVA Team
There’s a lot that can go wrong 250 miles above the surface of the earth. Up there, in Low Earth orbit, simple maneuvers require complex machines and perfectly executed mission sequences. A spacewalk is not a cakewalk, though NASA engineers can make it look that way.
James Montalvo, Daren Welsh, and Scott Wray are some of the NASA engineers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Their team works directly on spacewalks, also known as extravehicular activities (EVAs). Anytime an astronaut steps out of the spacecraft, James, Daren, Scott and their teams are hard at work.
To be successful, a spacewalk requires the collection and organisation of a plethora of information and details which must be stored in one of many locations on- or offline. The details are imperative to the EVA team’s missions, but trawling through several sources of information can be a costly timesink.
“We had a major knowledge capture issue within our group,” James says. “We had stuff spread out between just file share [drives]… It was spread out all over the place. None of them really had version control, [so] we had this issue of ‘what’s the latest version’, or ‘are you working on that thing right now’, things getting accidentally deleted.”
We find ourselves asking ourselves, well, we're already doing a fun, rewarding, and cool job, and here we are trying to do something completely different.
Daren has been a long-time advocate of MediaWiki as a platform. In late 2011, he persuaded James to “covertly” implement a wiki on a web server, and the team began quietly populating pages as something of a test case. They were wary of publicising the wiki throughout the organisation, fearful it might be dismissed by a management skeptical of the wiki framework.
“There was this period of time at end of 2012 where management got on board, and it kind of overnight changed from ‘we don't know if we are going to do this thing’ to ‘we are going to go all out wiki’,” Daren says.
“The word ‘wiki’ started being [used] many times in every meeting,” James adds. “People were always talking about how this content was on the wiki, or that content should be added to the wiki.”
The wiki’s importance to the EVA team became clear on one day when the unthinkable happened—the team’s server crashed. It was then, James says, that the group realised how fundamental this wiki project, launched by the three engineers and grown by countless others, had become in their daily routines.
Now, James, Daren, and Scott have set up more than ten wikis at NASA. They’ve found that providing a “critical mass” of starting material—derived from existing documents, or webpages containing large amounts of information—is needed to really get a team committed to a project. They also provide briefers on the more fiddly aspects of MediaWiki, such as ‘wikitext’ and template syntax.
The MediaWiki development used by the EVA team at NASA, James notes, resembles Wikipedia quite strongly. He says working with MediaWiki websites in enterprise situations can perhaps make people more aware of Wikipedia as a collaborative tool.
“I think that’s probably one of the biggest places where enterprise use can kind of give back,” he explains. “It’s just simply educating more people. If they get in the habit of, ‘oh there’s a typo I want to fix that’, when they get onto Wikipedia and they see something that’s grammatically incorrect or whatever…They’re gonna go ahead and make those changes.”
“It’s kind of a weird thing,” adds Daren, “being in a position where you want to also work on implementing wikis. We find ourselves asking ourselves, well, we're already doing a fun, rewarding, and cool job, and here we are trying to do something completely different.”
“It’s just that we’re trying to do our job better, and using a wiki... It pays itself back in dividends. It makes it easier for us to do our job, and makes us more efficient.”