In recent years, Mars surface missions operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have made significant advancements in activity planning tools and processes. By many accounts, the efficiency with which plans are generated for these missions has improved by an order of magnitude over the previous baseline. The Science Planning Interface (SPIFe) toolkit developed at Ames Research Center and the human-centered design process employed by the Ames Human-Computer Interaction Group has been central to this improvement. Many of the efficiency gains discovered and implemented for the Mars program were the direct result of human factors analysis and tool design and not improvements to the underlying planning technology.
The activity planning process used today on Shuttle and ISS is similar to the process used by JPL for deep space robotic mission planning – there is limited automated planning support and constraint and resource checking capability. As execution time approaches, it is increasingly costly to make needed changes to schedules. There is little to no real-time re-planning capability either on the ground or on-board.
In 2007 and 2008 efforts were made to adapt several core SPIFe components for use in planning and scheduling operations for the Flight Analogs Project Bedrest study. The collaboration was successful on both sides: the Bedrest study provided a real context in which to test and deploy the SPIFe next-generation planning tools, and a partially automated planning systems was created for Flight Analogs scheduling personnel use that is measurably better than the baseline Excel-based approach in a number of ways. Bedrest study scheduling personnel have begun migrating to SPIFe as their primary tool for tactical scheduling.
In 2009, adaptation for a domain relevant to the Constellation Program was begun. Through extensive user research in this new domain, the intent was to further broaden an understanding of how users interact with planning systems in operational environments. Additionally, generalizable lessons learned were documented to date across the Mars, Bedrest, and NEEMO deployments of SPIFe.
Of the several projects that this investigation has actively participated in (the Flight Analogs Project Bed Rest Study out of Johnson Space Center (JSC), future Mars surface missions, operations planning for the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) analog, and for crew and ground operations onboard the International Space Station (ISS)), common challenges with planning tools, design and build solutions were identified. This experiment has characterized the activity of planning for these domains thoroughly in terms of key similarities, differences, and potential areas where tools can be improved to better meet mission needs.
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