How does the way we organize our technical teams impact our results? I present a comparative ethnographic study of work on two of NASA’s famous robotic spacecraft mission teams. While the robots appear to explore autonomously on the frontiers of space, a large, distributed team of scientists and engineers on Earth actually makes the decisions about what they should do and how they accomplish their science. As spacecraft team members negotiate for robotic time and resources, this reveals the role of the sociotechnical organization in understanding how decisions are made and which data are acquired, with implications for human-robot relations, data sharing, and scientific discoveries.
Dubbed “Margaret Mead among the Starfleet” in the Times Literary Supplement, Janet Vertesi is assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University, where she specializes in the sociology of science, technology, and organizations. Her past decade of research, funded by the National Science Foundation, examines how distributed robotic spacecraft teams work together effectively to produce scientific and technical results. She is also an active member of the Human-Computer Interaction research community, with publications at ACM CHI, Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, and Ubiquitous Computing, and prior collaborations with Intel and Yahoo. Vertesi holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University and M.Phil from University of Cambridge; she is a Fellow of the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy and an advisory board member of the Data & Society Institute. She is the author of Seeing Like a Rover: How robots, teams and images craft knowledge of Mars (Chicago, 2015), co-editor with David Ribes and others of digitalSTS (Princeton, 2019) and author of the forthcoming Shaping Science: Organizations, Decisions, and Culture on NASA’s Teams (Chicago, 2020).