NASA’s Safety Organizations: The Business of Finding More Problems

written by David Mixson

One of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s (CAIB) recommendations after the Columbia accident was that NASA create an independent Technical Engineering Authority that doesn’t have any connection to or responsibility for schedule or program costs.1

Soon after that, NASA beefed up its Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) organizations and put them on separate support contracts outside the main support contract at each center. 

This all sounds so good, doesn’t it? In the end, I’m not sure it did anything but slow us down. 

Big Business

Most of these contracts are cost-plus type contracts. We now have massive safety organizations and support contractors that continue to exist only if they find problems and raise flags.

And if your company that won the SMA contract finds enough things to question, you can probably justify hiring even more safety engineers to find even more reasons to slow down work. 

We have fancy posters by the elevators encouraging us to voice any concerns we might have—about anything. We have safety hotlines where you can call it in anonymously. 

And all you have to do is raise a question. You don’t have to do real engineering work or show any data before you voice a concern. 

“Are you sure about that drawing?” 

“I’d like to see more analysis.”

“I don’t think those words are clear enough.”

“I think we should have a tiger team go off and study that.”

“I’m not sure the Verification Closure Statement (VCN) sounds right.”

The outcome of this lazy engineering is that we’ve created a system that mistakes real work for talking about safety. Being for safety doesn’t give NASA an excuse to fail.

The only way to avoid all risks is to do Powerpoint engineering, cancel each new launch vehicle before it flies, and let New Space do the hard work because Old Space doesn’t have the stomach anymore. And that’s exactly what NASA has done over the last two decades since we beefed up our safety organizations.

Engineers and program managers have to make tough decisions. No amount of money, time, or caring about safety will make space travel a sure thing.

An Aggressive Cancer

NASA’s safety culture is like an aggressive cancer. It reproduces on a whim, seeps into anything that won’t stand up to its force—and almost always mutates into feel-good-ism.

To score high in competitions, companies propose things like developing new smartphone apps that track cube safety metrics. They do this to score strengths, and sadly, it works. I know this firsthand from serving on two Source Evaluation Boards (SEBs).

Here’s an interesting fact. Since NASA beefed up the numbers in their safety organizations (and empowered anyone to voice their opinions about anything), NASA Old Space has canceled every new launch vehicle program except the current one called Space Launch System (SLS).

And SLS is so over budget and behind schedule that it’s difficult to keep up—even though it uses the RS-25 liquid rocket motors designed for the Shuttle in the 80s that have actually flown already in the early 2000s.

Maybe NASA’s low performance since SMA staffed up is just a coincidence—but maybe it isn’t. In either case, this is the best Old Space NASA can do with massive safety organizations.

Safety at all costs is too costly—and it led to nearly a decade without NASA having a vehicle to launch astronauts into space. And if SpaceX hadn’t come along, today’s NASA would still be without one.

NASA’s over-the-top safety culture is paralyzing the agency—and no one wants to stand up to its force. Came someone say FEAR?

Read Next

About the Author

David Mixson writes about Old Space and New Space. He worked as an engineer at NASA for more than thirty years and is the author of three books.

NASAology Notices

Exclusive content. Delivered weekly.

We hate SPAM.

Unsubscribe any time.