Dialogue Q2 2022

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rover launched from Cape Canaveral in July 2020, successfully negotiating those turbulent months – and final seven minutes of terror – to touchdown in February 2021. It was a timely reminder that humans can thrive in adversity. It was a rallying cry for modern science, a beacon in the darkness. The launch and the touchdown won the headlines. Yet the extraordinary success of the project was seeded much earlier, when NASA itself had to remodel at speed, in response to the earthly threat of Covid-19. The headquartered organization of popular legend had to switch its sophisticated systems from its technical centres to its employees’ homes. There was minimal time, and Datta and the leadership team were at the controls. “It was fast – and it was hard,” she tells Dialogue. “But I think NASA is a very can-do type of organization. And it was clear – utterly unambiguous – that we needed to go remote to keep the workforce healthy and safe from the pandemic.”

Space racer Jane Datta helped NASA reach the new world of remote work at record speed Writing Michael Canning Photography Aubrey Gemignani


hen you are landing a spacecraft on Mars, the final stage is the scariest. “We call it the last seven minutes of terror,” says Jane Datta, chief human capital officer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Perseverance, the state-of-the-art rover that is adding metric tonnes to our understanding of the Red Planet, is aptly named. It was through dogged determination, persistence and innovation that it was launched at the outset of the pandemic. When the going got tough, NASA got going. The

One of the great things about NASA is that the leadership is people-focused


Creating order out of chaos Scientia potentia est – knowledge is power. Yet, in March 2020, information was scarce. NASA, like the rest of the world, was flying half-blind. “We knew less about the virus than we do now,” says Datta. “And we didn’t have vaccines and other options that we now have. But at that time, it was clear we needed to go remote. And one of the great things about NASA is that the leadership is peoplefocused.” The leadership met as a group and resolved to evacuate NASA’s sites just a few months before Perseverance was due to launch. In short order, an organization that was 90% onsite became 90% offsite. “It was a combination of the can-do spirit of the unified voice of the leadership and the clarity of the need to act,” says Datta. “It was a really rapid shift – within a single pay period. And people still remember the last day they spent in the office – it was like time stopped!” Was there seven minutes of terror – or seven hours, or seven days? “When we first dispersed, there was a sense of, ‘Oh, gosh. Now what?’” recalls Datta. “‘What do we do? How is this going to work?’ Schools and daycares were closing. It was a mess. People’s lives were turned upside down. They didn’t know how to respond. We ended up leveraging our leadership group to create some order out of chaos.” When you move the quintessential all-handson-deck organization to remote-working, the challenges are profound. NASA’s leadership group