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  • Shaping Science: Organizations, Decisions, and Culture on NASA's Teams by Janet Vertesi
  • Ramesh Subramanian (bio)
Shaping Science: Organizations, Decisions, and Culture on NASA's Teams By Janet Vertesi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. Pp. 352.

"Spacecraft don't have social lives." This is how a principal investigator of the Saturn project code-named Helena reacts when author Janet Vertesi begins a presentation during her anthropological study of NASA scientists and engineers with this slide: "The Social Life of Spacecraft."

Indeed, one may question if Vertesi's slide is just a typical anthropomorphism of a scientific tool. Yet, in Shaping Science, Vertesi masterfully, and with intricate detail, shows how spacecraft take on a life nurtured by scientists and engineers who, by their very actions and approaches, embody them with sociological characteristics.

Vertesi's first book, Seeing Like a Rover (University of Chicago Press, 2014), was an examination of everyday life on NASA's Mars robotic spacecraft teams. In this sequel, Vertesi explores a much bigger picture by [End Page 304] adding the Saturn mission, which explored the rings, planets, and plasma layers surrounding Saturn. Vertesi expands the vast organizational literature on how people organize around projects and missions in a plurality of organizations. From a history of science perspective, her work expands on recent studies of organizations and infrastructures by Cyrus Mody, "What Do Scientists and Engineers Do All Day?" (Devlin and Bokulich, Springer, 2015) and "Fabricating an Organizational Field for Research" (Heinze and Münch, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and Hallonsten et al., Big Science and Research Infrastructures in Europe (Edward Elgar, 2020). She enunciates the principles of what she terms "organized science"—in short, the idea that organizations shape epistemology. Scientific organizations shape scientific outcomes, and scientific outcomes in turn impact scientific organizations.

These principles beg the question: is there an optimal organization conducive to space exploration? Vertesi emphatically says "no." She uses the Mars and Saturn missions, Helena and Paris respectively, to explain this. The two missions are organized very differently. Helena uses a matrix embracing the concept of integration, whereas Paris uses a flat-hierarchical structure built as a charismatic collective, which synthesizes different scientists' ideas and needs into a singular vision. Is one better than the other? Again, Vertesi's answer is "no."

There is much that the history of science community can learn from Vertesi's work. In part I, she gives us a guided, immersive tour of various interactions within Helena and Paris: the arguments, debates, contentions, arbitration, the challenges, competition, and decision-making. Each mission handles these completely differently. Helena takes on the clamorous intensity of a boisterous democracy in action, while Paris has the fervent earnestness seen at a serious religious revival. Vertesi contends that neither approach is wrong. They are just different approaches to getting answers for such difficult and deep questions as: what is the composition of the many moons of Saturn? What is the nature of hexagonal cloud formations in the polar regions of Titan? What is the precise nature of soil on Mars? Why does Enceladus spew ice into space?

These questions lead us to explore the outcomes of the various forms of organization on Helena and Paris, namely the Science, Spacecraft, Data, Personalities, and Iterative Loop (part II). Each is shaped by the type of organization. The scientific outcome is built on collaborations and co-authorship networks, which in turn signal how scientific questions are framed. The spacecraft and its potential are similarly a direct result of the groups and their priorities. Consequently, the data collected reflects the organizational form. Personalities shape the organizations. Vertesi notes that interestingly, the personalities include very few Black Americans, and there are clear old-girls' and old-boys' networks. Another interesting observation is nationalism creeping in—European scientists complaining [End Page 305] about not being cited in American scientists' publications, despite their similarities in quality and presentation. Vertesi describes the iterative loop—how entities in part two influence entities, or organizations, in part one—and concludes by aptly quoting a protagonist, Edgar: "When you are learning science, you learn a lot of things … But one thing you don't learn that's surprising is that science is really...


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pp. 304-306
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