Ask OCE — January 12, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 2
Message from the Chief Engineer
Risk Management: Enabling the New Age of Exploration
Remarks delivered by Chris Scolese at the Risk Management Conference (RMC VI), Orlando, FL
December 6, 2005
We are at the beginning of a very exciting time for NASA and the nation. We have a new vision that will allow humans to once again leave the Earth and travel to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Our new vision brings to mind something President Kennedy said in 1962. In his speech in which he challenged the nation to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, he said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."
Seven years later, I can recall as a child watching the Apollo astronauts walk on the Moon and the thrill and pride it gave me. It also was an encouragement to me and many others to pursue a career in science and engineering and in space exploration.
As we all know, the Apollo program and any large scale program — whether it is going to the moon, landing robotic spacecraft on Mars, conducting remote observations of the Earth, or building a nuclear reactor — involves the management of risk. As the stakes get higher — either from a human safety perspective or visibility or the amount of energy that is being controlled — the decisions become more and more critical. In most of our undertakings, we have many people who contribute to the success — or failure — of an activity. Today I want to talk about the people who will make this vision a reality. The people who will build the vehicles to launch and carry humans throughout space, the robotic spacecraft that will explore the great beyond and prepare the way for humans, and the researchers who will develop the new ideas that make these advances possible.
So let me say again that we have been given a great opportunity — it's a great time to be in NASA and to be associated with the space program. We have a great responsibility to implement this vision.
So what do I see as our path to success?
Most importantly, we all must understand and believe that we are individually responsible for the success of the mission. Each person, regardless of position or area of responsibility, contributes to success. What we do is so complex and unique that each and every component must work for us to be successful. We know that simple things can cause large problems. Failing to follow procedures has resulted in the damage of a spacecraft on the ground — not even in space. Launch vehicles have failed to deliver their cargo to space because people did not check coefficients, or carelessly stepped on a cable, or failed to review prior flight data.
In Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology
, James Chiles cites the Apollo 1 fire as a tragic example of an urgent project leading people to miss problems that with greater rigor would have been managed. On January 27, 1967, the testing of the electrical system within the pressurized oxygen-rich environment of the command module led to a deadly fire that killed crew members Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The fire ignited so quickly and burned so furiously that only 12 seconds elapsed between the first cries for help and the crews' deaths from smoke inhalation. This was an example of people so devoted to completing a project that time was not taken to learn from the lessons of previous mishaps and near-misses. Long before Apollo, high-oxygen environments had led to deaths and failures.
We have lost missions because people failed to check the technical drawings for accuracy or failed to believe telemetry. We have lost missions because people failed to ask questions! All of these involve people at various levels of the organization. We — each and every one of us — are responsible for safety and success.
But saying this is meaningless without some context. What are the ingredients that will let us all understand and assume this responsibility?
First, we must have a motivated workforce. This is probably the easiest for our venture. I have never seen a group of people so committed to an activity as we have. People regularly — routinely — make personal sacrifices, often giving up holidays and family time to accomplish our missions. So motivation is never a problem.
Second, we need a competent workforce. Again, within the space community we have most of the best people around, because what we do is so unique. We seldom build anything more than once and when we do they typically do different things. So no two identical spacecraft are the same! As a result we tend to have a workforce that is innovative and knowledgeable, because to build one-of-kinds or to do unique things we must rely on the intelligence of the individual to understand the end goal and adapt existing processes and knowledge to achieve our goals. I don't mean to take away from anyone else, but this is not building cell phones or automobiles or even airplanes — this is rocket science. One-of-a-kind rocket science.
Motivation and competence alone are not enough, however. People need the support of the organization. So what must NASA and the space industry do to capitalize on our talent?
We must provide the training to allow people to develop and take on new challenges. This means making the best training possible available for our engineering and programmatic workforce through our Academy of Program Project and Engineering Leadership, or APPEL. This will allow us to stay current with the latest theories and practices as well as provide the experiences to learn by doing. The last thing one wants to do is put someone in charge for the first time of a high-visibility, expensive, human-crewed system! Ideally, program managers should have been given the opportunities to learn, experiment, and succeed or fail on a progression of increasingly difficult activities. As we implement the Vision for Exploration, we as an agency must revamp our training programs, provide opportunities for people to gain experiences, and work with academia to develop the next generation of scientists, engineers, technicians, and accountants.
This also requires continuous learning and communication. We must be a learning organization where we share the results of our successes and failures in a way that allows us to take advantage of best practices and avoid mistakes. Communication of our goals and objectives will ensure that people stay focused on the right things; it will help us identify trends earlier and therefore avoid problems; and it will help us to prevent rumors that distract and ultimately delay progress.
We must provide the tools for success. This means the facilities, computer models, analytical techniques, and equipment that will allow us to design, build, test, and operate the systems of the future. NASA is undertaking a review to examine existing facilities for future applicability and to identify what new capabilities must be developed.
Finally, we must provide the processes and procedures that enable us to complete the work collaboratively. This has two components. First, we must provide the operators with good clear procedures that allow us to complete tasks effectively in a manner that is repeatable. Doing this will certainly reduce our operations costs. In the Navy where I started, we were required to write all of our procedures and maintenance manuals at the 9th grade level. As a result we had the widest possible range of people available to operate our ships. This reduces costs and fosters designs that encourage collaborative problem-solving. The other component is to develop or adopt common processes and procedures within NASA as well as across similar organizations in DoD, private industry, and probably the international community. This will open up our supplier base and provide better assurance for long term manufacturability.
So how does this reduce risk? I think it's obvious: the right people in a highly functioning organization. If all of these components are addressed and treated seriously, a motivated and competent workforce that has the right training, tools, and procedures must be successful. Other organizations have adopted these principles — they were there during Apollo, the military uses these, and companies such as GE also do this. In fact probably every successful organization wants this.
The challenge is for the individual to evaluate constantly the adequacy of our training, communication, tools, and procedures. If they are in place, then I am confident that individuals will understand what to do and have the knowledge and confidence to speak up when something is amiss in either their or someone else’s area of responsibility.
The challenge for the organization is to recognize when training, tools, and processes need to be changed, and to provide them to the workforce. We are doing this in NASA as we look at our infrastructure for relevance to the future. In my office we are looking at how to provide the training, tools, processes and knowledge to enable all of our future activities.
So in conclusion, as we embark with Exploration we all must recognize that we are — each of us — individually responsible for the success and safety of our mission. The fact that we at NASA are fortunate to have one of the most exciting objectives — to explore the unknown, understand our Earth and the universe, and to expand human presence beyond the Earth — means we will always have a steady supply of motivated people. It is our job collectively to ensure that we provide the training, tools, and processes to allow them to be competent in assessing risk and assuring mission success.
It is a part of our very DNA to explore; it is also a part of our responsibility to explore with a careful and sober attention to the management of risk.