Wrangling Space Cowboys

ISE adjunct professor Nancy Currie explains how NASA’s cowboy attitude led to the Columbia disaster

Along with firefighters, pirates and superheroes, astronauts always rank high on the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” list. These professions also share another common trait, high risk. With all due respect to superheroes, being an astronaut is the most risky profession in the world. Although many of the dangers are well-known, one in particular may be a surprise.

At her keynote address at the 2015 IIE Annual Conference, ISE adjunct professor and former astronaut Nancy Currie explained how NASA’s attitude toward addressing potential dangers was a major factor leading to the Columbia Shuttle disaster in 2003. Dr. Currie serves as a principal engineer at the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC). She is part of the team assigned to changing NASA’s mentality from “good enough” to one of safety and risk assessment. The teams at NASA believed that most of the risk occurred during the launch of the vehicles and conditioned themselves into believing that after launch, 98% of the risk was gone. However, that is far from reality.

There have been three fatal accidents in the U.S. concerning space flight: Apollo 1 (1967), Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003). Columbia was the accident that changed everything. It changed how NASA operated both systematically and operationally and it cut short the possibility of any launches for the next several years. NASA’s missions were restricted to building and finishing the International Space Station. Any flights launched were test flights and only contained the smallest number of essential crew.

Dr. Currie explained that as an organization, they became a victim of their own success. After going through thousands of hours of training, human space flight seemed so easy. They simply stopped concentrating on their past failures and focused only on their successes. “Why do we learn from our past?” asked Dr. Currie. “In order to create preventative measures, we must learn from our history or else it will certainly repeat itself.”

One of the biggest issues that NASA faced was their “Out of Family” mentality. “Out of Family means that something may not work the way intended,” explained Dr. Currie. “But it works okay and that was good enough.” It was this mindset that eventually lead to the destruction of Columbia. As Dr. Currie states, “We have found time and time again that it’s at the interface of these complex systems where the majority of the problems occurred.”

Walking hand in hand with the “Out of Family” mentality is the idea that many individuals felt as though they could not speak up when they had reason to prevent a launch. This is why the NESC encourages proactive involvement, working to strengthen systems engineering while integrating systems safety. They needed to create a system by which everyone could speak up without hesitation.

The NESC safety philosophy stresses three beliefs: strong in-line checks and balances, healthy tension between the engineering organization and management, and value-added independent assessments. If a problem arises, a team of technical experts will immediately start working on the issue. These teams consist of experts from NASA, other industries and academia.

Today, the NESC continues to work on increasing safety awareness and practices while working with private companies, such as SpaceX and Boeing, to someday launch commercial space flights. NASA also works to maintain the International Space Station (ISS) and continuing research at the U.S. National Lab.

The importance of safety is at the forefront of all of these projects and thanks to Dr. Currie and the others at the NESC, NASA continues to remind itself of failures and to stay vigilant in the environment and culture of the exploration of space.

Watch Dr. Currie’s keynote address.