This paper explores how different forms of anticipatory work contribute to reliability in high-risk space operations. It is based on ethnographic field work, participant observation and interviews supplemented with video recordings from a control room responsible for operating a microgravity greenhouse at the International Space Station (ISS). Drawing on examples from different stages of a biological experiment on the ISS, we demonstrate how engineers, researchers and technicians work to anticipate and proactively mitigate possible problems. Space research is expensive and risky. The experiments are planned over the course of many years by a globally distributed network of organizations. Owing to the inaccessibility of the ISS, every trivial detail that could possibly cause a problem is subject to scrutiny. We discuss what we label anticipatory work: practices constituted of an entanglement of cognitive, social and technical elements involved in anticipating and proactively mitigating everything that might go wrong. We show how the nature of anticipatory work changes between planning and the operational phases of an experiment. In the planning phase, operators inscribe their anticipation into technology and procedures. In the operational phase, we show how troubleshooting involves the ability to look ahead in the evolving temporal trajectory of the ISS operations and to juggle pre-planned fixes along these trajectories. A key objective of this paper is to illustrate how anticipation is shared between humans and different forms of technology. Moreover, it illustrates the importance of including considerations of temporality in safety and reliability research.
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Interestingly, Haavik (2014a) argues that the theoretical frameworks Normal Accidents Theory (NAT) and High Reliability Organizations Resilience Engineering are relationally oriented in their initial conceptions.
There have been debates between Hutchins and Latour on whether or not cognitive explanations are necessary (Giere and Moffatt 2003). Also, Latour’s insistence that the agency of technology must be understood as symmetrical with the agency of humans is controversial.
Latour’s examples are trivial, but pedagogical. Consult Ribes et al. (2013) for a more empirically relevant discussion of delegation (viz. a networked organization managing a computing grid).
Fixating seeds means injecting chemicals into the seed cassettes which stops the biological mechanisms within the seeds in order to study them on the ground from the time of fixation.
The terminology being used for communication shadow ISS is loss of signal (LOS) and acquisition of signal (AOS) when the connection is good. Availability of S-band and KU-band is also commonly used to describe communication windows.
Mohammad et al. (2014) provides a thorough description of the methodological audiovisual set up.
Signatures refer to telemetry parameters, color-coded visual signs for errors or sensor interpretation, which indicate that the system is in a nominal or off-nominal state.
For example, they can be ways for management to show the authorities that a lesson has been learned from the incident, or to assign responsibility (or blame) for specific issues.
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Johansen, J.P., Almklov, P.G. & Mohammad, A.B. What can possibly go wrong? Anticipatory work in space operations. Cogn Tech Work 18, 333–350 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10111-015-0357-8
- Space operations
- Distributed cognition
- Control room
- Voice loop