People Analytics for a trip to Mars?

To prep for its trip to Mars, NASA has turned to its People Analytics team.

We build margins of error in almost everything we do. However, one of the few areas we can’t afford them is when sending humans to space. And hence in preparing to send humans to Mars for the very first time, NASA has turned to people analytics.

I found this article and interview with David Meza, who leads People Analytics at NASA, fascinating for a multitude of reasons. First, he acknowledges the basics – a skill gap that may exist in its ranks since it has been decades since our last manned flight to another celestial body. For an agency like NASA that works with only the best in the space with a deep focus on preparation, this statement may seem counterintuitive. However, the challenges of inter-celestial manned flights are significantly greater than those that NASA has taken on recently. Assessing the skills it houses against those it requires is the most basic and important step in that direction.

Second, NASA employs over 18,000 people with a variety of skill sets. David’s approach, in layman terms, is to build a talent mapping tool that can help managers identify employees with varied and nuanced skills, as well as aid employees in looking for specific roles. Once the broad NASA-wide tool is built and deployed, it then will delve deep into mission specific skills.

While an internal talent marketplace is fairly basic practice in the people analytics function, I would be interested to see the similarity function and graph databases at play. The similarity function takes a step beyond a simple matchmaker database, and automatically compares roles/skills that may be useful.

This may seem straightforward but I believe its anything but. My concern with using only this tool is the unintended filters, biases of a purely algorithmic search. I would be curious to learn how NASA compliments its internal talent marketplace with manual practices.

Lastly, one of the major challenges is the dynamic nature of the work and accelerated timelines that NASA has put forth. It plans a manned flight within the decade. As the challenges and requirements of a first ever trip to Mars increase, it’d be interesting to see the additional tools NASA uses to staff its teams internally.

Additionally, Jane Datta, NASA’s Chief Human Capital Officer, in an interview stated that at the height of the pandemic 90% of its employees worked remotely. I would be interested to see the collaborative tools the people analytics and Human Resources teams build for a hybrid work future for a workplace that’s intuitively meant to be in-person.


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Student comments on People Analytics for a trip to Mars?

  1. Hi Samar, thanks for sharing this article about NASA. It’s really interesting because I wasn’t aware that People Analytics could be used in such a scientific content. Previously, I thought that People Analytics is more helpful for businesses on identifying their company culture. Through this article, I found that the skill-matching and employee-retention techniques is more universally needed, both academically and business-wise.

  2. Hi Samar! Thank you for sharing this article – how fascinating. I think for NASA’s case, given the sheer volume of talent and the very specific technical skills required for a mission, this makes a lot of sense. I feel that an algorithmic marketplace could highlight very specific, objective skills and experiences that are needed for a technical mission. Ideally, these would be easy to assign in an objective manner. However, I 100% echo your point on policing these algorithms and always having a human in the loop to avoid biases and potential pitfalls.

  3. Thanks, Samar for giving us a sneak peek into people analytics at NASA. It is very fascinating that an algorithmic marketplace coupled with manual practices is/will be used for talent development in such a crucial skill-based work. While I echo most of the comments and insights you have brought out above, I wonder if the many tools and technologies NASA is trying to build-in take it over the curve (given that life is curvilinear, and we are all aiming to strike that perfect balance!). I am worried that bringing data tools to an already data-oriented bunch of extremely skilled people, might take-away from the joy of work, and be exceptionally hard to implement in a hybrid work model. Well, we will just have to wait and watch 🙂

  4. People analytics on Mars – and here I thought we hadn’t even done a great job on earth yet 🙂

    Great scoop Samar! Given that NASA is a government organization I wondered if there could be a similar effect to the DARPA/Silicon Valley cooperation. What if agencies like the CIA/NSA/Army use experimental technologies in people analytics that slowly get introduced to the private sector?

  5. Hi Samar, thank you for sharing that fascinating article. Your title cath up my eye, and the content piqued my interest. It is informative and reminds us that analytics is everywhere, independent of the sector and the company’s culture. It clearly shows how NASA uses data analytics and how the workplace transforms.

  6. I love this! What a creative application of people analytics. (And it’s clear by the number of comments on this piece that others found it compelling as well.)

    I found the point on skill gaps particularly thought provoking. As you say, it has been decades since NASA’s last flight — meaning it is unclear which skills exactly NASA needs. I wonder how NASA goes about identifying those skills. Perhaps they identify proxy organizations whose data they take to understand their own? As a follow up — what could possibly be a proxy to NASA!?

    Thanks for this really interesting post.

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