The Social Life of Spacecraft: Organized Science on NASA’s Robotic Spacecraft Teams

Lecture by Janet Vertesi (Princeton University)

Monday 10 December 2018, 5pm – 6pm Warwick in London

How does social organization affect the conduct and practice of science? To explore this question, Vertesi presents empirical data from a comparative ethnographic study of work on two NASA robotic spacecraft mission teams. While the robots appear to be singular entities operating autonomously in the frontiers of space, decisions about what the robots should do and how they accomplish their science are made on an iterative basis by a large, distributed team of scientists and engineers on Earth. As spacecraft team members negotiate among themselves for robotic time and resources, their sociotechnical organization is paramount to understanding how decisions are made, which scientific data are acquired, and how the team relates to their robot, with implications for team solidarity, data sharing, and scientific results.

Janet Vertesi is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Princeton University with a focus on the sociology of science, technology, and organizations. Dubbed “Margaret Mead among the Starfleet” in the Times Literary Supplement, 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. Her book Seeing Like a Rover (University of Chicago Press, 2015) describes the collaborative work of the Mars Exploration

Rover mission including the people, the images, and the robots who do science on Mars. Vertesi is also a long-time contributor to the Association of Computing Machinery conferences on human-computer interaction and computer supported cooperative work. She is an advisory board member of the Data and Society institute in New York City and is a member of Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy.

Attendance is free but registration is required. Available places will be allocated on a first come, first serve basis.

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This Lecture is supported by the ERC project BLINDSPOT, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies (University of Warwick) the Sociological Review, and the Center on Organizational Innovation (Columbia University).