Launching New Horizons: The RP-1 Tank Decision
[image-62]One of the most vigorous and healthy discussions at NASA over the past several years has concerned the establishment of the formal process for ensuring that dissenting opinions receive a full and fair hearing. That process, now codified in NPR 7120.5D, applies to unresolved issues of any nature (technical, programmatic, safety, or other), and delineates an orderly way of raising difficult issues and, when necessary, elevating them to higher levels of management for resolution. The dissenting opinion process is also featured in the recently updated Governance and Strategic Management Handbook (NPD 1000.0A).
Among other things, NPD 1000.0A articulates NASA's governance model - the structure that determines who makes what decisions, and the process for making those decisions. The governance model spells out roles, responsibilities, authorities, and checks and balances. NASA has invested a great deal of time and energy in getting this right because our most difficult decisions demand a transparent structure that promotes open communication and reinforces accountability.
The governance model and the process for handling dissenting opinions were both works in progress when the New Horizons mission to Pluto neared its January 2006 launch date. Four months before the planned launch, the manufacturer of the launch vehicle reported that its fuel tank experienced a failure during the final stages of qualification testing. The questions raised by this failure ultimately presented a test case for the Agency's recently revamped governance model. The programmatic, engineering, and safety communities had fundamental disagreements about difficult technical questions, which ultimately led to an appeal to the NASA Administrator. The experience that NASA's senior leadership gained from New Horizons and other cases such as the STS-121 ice/frost ramp decision led to improvements in the governance model that have been incorporated into NASA's current documents.
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