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An Interview with Paul S. Gill

Manager, U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration Technical Standards Program

When and why was the NASA Technical Standards Program implemented?

The NASA Technical Standards Program’s formal implementation was in October 1997 with the issuing of a NASA policy directive by the Administrator. The primary objective was to establish, where applicable, common agency standards for use in NASA’s programs and projects. Since the origin of NASA in 1968, each NASA field center established its own standards, mainly using MIL-STDS [military standards] and those developed to meet the needs of the center’s programs and projects. There were a few standards in areas of safety, security, and so on that were common within the agency, but in general each field center had its own standards products.

With the establishment of an agency-wide Technical Standards Program, a dedicated effort was undertaken to provide common standards by converting center-developed standards and adopting or endorsing non-NASA standards for the agency’s use. These were subject to reviews and endorsements by all centers, approval by the NASA chief engineer, and made readily accessible via the program’s Web site.

What are the objectives of the program?

The objectives of the program are threefold: 1) improve and maintain NASA’s engineering capability, 2) capture and preserve engineering lessons learned and best practices, and 3) facilitate the insertion of technology into all NASA programs and projects. These objectives are not mutually exclusive but are each part of an integrated NASA technical standards effort to meet the needs of the agency’s programs and projects.

To what degree have the objectives been achieved and were there any significant lessons learned in developing the program?

While work remains to be done relative to all three objectives, considerable progress has been made since the formal implementation of the program in 1997. We have converted about 60 center-developed standards and adopted or endorsed over 2,000 non-NASA standards, MIL-STDS and non-government standards, as NASA Preferred Technical Standards. We are continuing our emphasis on the conversion of center-developed standards to either NASA-unique standards or non-government standards. One of our most recent thrusts has been to identify lessons learned/best practices from government and non-government data sources and link them with NASA Preferred Technical Standards.

Probably the most significant lesson learned in developing the program was that to be successful we had to essentially change the culture of NASA regarding standards development and use. Pulling together the 10 diverse NASA centers into one cohesive team required a lot of cooperation, open communications, and support by the agency’s senior management. This did not happen overnight but is now functioning in a very meaningful manner to the benefit of all concerned.

Are there any unique aspects of the NASA Technical Standards Program compared to those of other government agencies?

The program is unique in several aspects. Unlike the U.S. Department of Defense’s acquisition-based program where large quantities of items are procured, the NASA program is engineering-based, under the leadership of the NASA chief engineer. Also, NASA is neither a regulatory agency nor does it procure very large numbers of items, but is a research and development organization, thus it has a different need and focus for standards.

In addition, the agency has a unique integrated technical standards initiative that consists of three systems: full-text standards access, a standards update notification to users, and a lessons learned/best practices/standards integration system. This provides NASA engineers and its on-site support contractors ready access to standards developed by NASA, DOD, other agencies, and national and international non-government standards developing organizations. Key to this initiative has been the almost complete open access to the products of non-government standards developing organizations, either directly or through all suppliers. This has been a win-win situation for all concerned — users, developers, and suppliers.

Given the diverse nature of NASA’s field center activities, how did NASA accomplish the integration of technical standards into one agency-focused effort accessible to all employees?

As noted earlier, the success of the program’s goal to integrate the agency’s diverse standards products into one agency-focused effort was due to several key factors. They included: 1) support by the administrator and other senior managers, within the headquarters enterprises as well as field centers; 2) open communications throughout the agency; 3) grass-roots support and recognition by the agency’s engineers of the value of common standards within the agency; and 4) the establishment of an agency-wide Technical Standards Working Group with senior representatives from all field centers and several headquarters offices. This working group functions under the oversight of the agency’s Engineering Management Board, whose membership consists of second-level engineering managers from the field centers. These were the key factors in enabling the agency focus on standards to become a reality.

How are technical standards used within NASA?

Technical standards are used within the agency in a variety of ways: 1) supporting NASA’s engineering oversight responsibilities relative to verifying designs, processes, and procedures used in the development of its programs and projects; 2) use for in-house research and development activities; 3) proposal reviews; 4) development of requirements for programs and projects; 5) testing and evaluation; 6) indoctrination of new engineers; 7) parts and materials acquisition; 8) safety; and 9) improving core engineering capabilities and incorporation of new technology.

For example, in the past two years, of the approximately 100,000 downloads of standards from the program’s agency-wide Web site, about 25 percent have been MIL-STDS, 10 percent have been NASA-developed, and the rest were non-government standards, with ASTM standards being a stand-out in terms of usage. As we adopt or endorse more non-government standards we see a continued increase in their use within the agency.

Is NASA involved in partnerships with other U.S. government agencies, such as the Departments of Defense and Energy, and non-government standards organizations, such as ASTM, in meeting the objectives of the program?

Partnerships with other government agencies and non-government standards developing organizations are a key element of the program relative to meeting its objectives. This is also one of the main directives of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-119, “Federal Participation in the Development and Use of Voluntary Consensus Standards and Conformity Assessment Activities.” NASA currently has over 130 people participating in more than 40 non-government standards development committees. We are also actively engaged with the Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office in standards and lessons learned-related activities of mutual interest.

ASTM is one of NASA’s main partners. We have 32 people involved in developing about 50 standards within 41 committees. We are currently soliciting proposals from NASA’s field centers for the development of standards of value to the agency’s programs and projects, including the participation in non-government standards developing activities.

How many active NASA technical standards are there that were developed in-house and how can they be accessed?

Since the program was formed in late 1997, 59 NASA-unique standards have been developed. Of these, 20 are engineering, 20 information technology, and 19 safety and mission assurance standards. They can readily be accessed via the program’s Web site,, and, being in the public domain, are available free to the public. These standards have also been endorsed by the agency as NASA Preferred Technical Standards.

To what degree are non-government standards developing organizations like ASTM meeting the needs of NASA?

Standards developed by non-government organizations like ASTM are of considerable importance to NASA in the development of its programs and projects. As noted earlier, about 65 percent of the standards downloaded from the program’s Web site in the past two years were produced by non-government standards developing organizations. Materials, processes, and testing standards are a main focus for users. For example, 379 ASTM standards have been adopted or endorsed as NASA Preferred Technical Standards. An additional 121 ASTM standards are in a “pending adoption” stage, and are currently in review within the agency.

Of non-government standards, ASTM’s rank third in terms of the most used with over 5,000 downloads in less than two years. Including MIL-STDS and other standards, ASTM is fourth in terms of downloads. Non-government standards are well received and doing an excellent job fulfilling the agency’s needs except for some unique NASA requirements for which standards are developed by the agency. ASTM-developed standards have played important roles, for example, in the Mars Pathfinder program (SN, September 1999, p. 13) and the International Space Stations program. An example of collaboration between NASA and ASTM on several standards development efforts is given in SN, September 1999, p.14-15.

How does NASA support the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (Public Law 104-113) through employee and supporting contractor participation in non-government standards developing organization’s activities?

Public Law 104-113 and OMB Circular A-119 receive considerable attention from the agency. Meeting the requirements and intent of these two mandates for government agencies relative to use and participation in development of non-government standards is a fundamental cornerstone of the program. NASA provides salary and travel support, encourages participation, and actively promotes the adoption or endorsement of non-government standards.

What is the future course of the NASA Technical Standards Program given the current environment for aeronautical research and space exploration activities?

The program is enjoying the results of the cultural change that has occurred within the agency since the program’s formal implementation in 1997. The various program activities continue to gain momentum. We see a strong continued effort on the conversion of center-developed standards to NASA Preferred Technical Standards, both as NASA-unique and non-government standards. Enhancing the agency’s engineering capabilities through awareness initiatives directed at both the individual engineer and program or project management will continue to be a major thrust of the program. We are in the process of developing agency-wide Disciplinary Working Groups to support the development of common standards, guide the integration of lessons learned/best practices into standards and increase the agency’s engineering knowledge base.

However, probably the most challenging new initiative is to establish a process whereby the NASA Preferred Technical Standards (NASA, other government, and non-government standards) can be readily integrated into the applicable phases of the development of a program or project. This would be accomplished by readily accessing the programmatic and engineering standards needed to ensure the best results at each phase of the program or project development process.

The concept envisioned for this new initiative is that Web site access for standards will be identified and linked to the various phases of the development cycle for a program or project. This will provide the responsible engineer and manager not only with the standards needed but the identification of standards that should be considered at each phase in the program or project life cycle. While this is an ambitious undertaking, once it has been achieved the pay-off will be considerable both from a technical and programmatic standpoint. //

Copyright 2003, ASTM

Paul S. Gill is manager, NASA Technical Standards Program, where he plans, directs, and coordinates the agency’s technical standards activities among the 10 NASA centers. His responsibilities also include leading actions on the development and adoption of NASA Preferred Technical Standards. He serves on technical committees of several national and international aerospace standards development organizations. Gill has received a number of prestigious NASA awards, including the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal.