December 24, 2009 — Vol. 2, Issue 12
Space Systems Development: Lessons Learned
"Space Systems Development: Lessons Learned" takes an unflinching look at 35 NASA and foreign mission failures and the root causes behind them.
In their combined 80 years of experience developing space systems, NASA veterans Larry Ross and Joe Nieberding earned their fair share of "scar tissue" from failures that touched their careers. Today Ross, former Center Director of Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center, and Nieberding, former director of the Advanced Space Analysis Office at Lewis, share that knowledge with the current generation of NASA engineers through "Space Systems Development: Lessons Learned," a two-day course offered through the Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership (APPEL).
Ross and Nieberding developed the prototype for the course in September 2006 when Nieberding, serving as a member of the Independent Review Board (IRB) for the Crew Launch Vehicle (now known as Ares I), received a request to present a one-hour summary of lessons learned to the IRB. Four months later, they debuted an early one-day version of the course sponsored by the Ares I project office at Glenn. They have since offered it two dozen times, eventually expanding it to the current two-day format.
They have seen specific examples of how "Space Systems Development: Lessons Learned" has led NASA project teams to learn from past failures. One of the cases covered in the course is the first Titan-Centaur mission, which failed because the Centaur boost pump did not work properly. A simple test to "spin up" the pump right before launch would have alerted the mission control team that there was a problem with the pump. The team had not tested the pump during the countdown because of the general feeling that boost pumps were quite reliable and the pre-launch test was too difficult. This decision cost the mission.
When Ross and Nieberding covered Titan-Centaur with the Ares I Thrust Vector Control team at Glenn, they learned that the Ares team, employing the same logic as the Titan-Centaur team, did not plan a pre-launch spin-up test for the turbopump assembly. The Titan-Centaur case was instrumental in convincing the team to reconsider and add the test. "One lesson learned like that can save a mission," said Ross.
Some project teams have made "Space Systems Development: Lessons Learned" a team learning experience. After Ross and Nieberding served as review board members for the Ares I-X project, Project Manager Bob Ess decided to run the course four times, once each at the four field centers (Glenn, Kennedy, Marshall, and Langley) where Ares I-X was under development. Ess and his deputy project manager each attended the course twice. Ross and Nieberding have been asked to run a similar customized course for the External Tank team at Michoud that focused on late-term manufacturing issues.
"This course meets an important need for the agency," said Roger Forsgren, deputy director of APPEL. "Stakeholders like the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) and the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) have asked NASA to demonstrate that it is passing on its knowledge and lessons learned. ‘Space Systems Development: Lessons Learned' is a clear example of how we use case studies from our past to address that."
For Ross and Nieberding, "Space Systems Development: Lessons Learned" is a labor of love. "We both spent our careers at NASA and have it in our blood," said Ross and Nieberding. "We are trying to look for ways to give back."
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