You've heard it time and again: Put safety first. For a moment, let us change this perspective slightly to an approach where we would always consider safety in all our activities. We can all agree that preventing accidents avoids hurting people and fosters happiness, but if we put safety first, it implies that safety can be prioritized with other factors such as cost or schedule. It should not be prioritized; it is a value and is one of four core values underlying all that NASA does. The other three values are People, Excellence and Integrity. NASA's overall accident-prevention record is better than most research and development and exploration agencies. But, no organization should become complacent despite its exceptional record, especially if that organization's business involves the inherently risky nature of aerospace operations.
Image to left: The Space Shuttle making a beautiful nighttime launch. Credit: NASA
The Space Shuttle Columbia accident in February 2003 proves that you can never stop seeking ways to correct the faults in organizations or systems. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board prescribed a number of recommendations for NASA to follow to better cope with some of the faults that the Board believed existed. Many of these faults were related to the Space Shuttle hardware, but many also applied to NASA's organization and its culture. One of the faults that was particularly troublesome was the scarcity of engineering and safety skills suitably independent from the day-to-day work of programs to identify, evaluate and express independent views on problems. With that in mind, NASA created the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC).
Nobody plans to have an accident. People don't make errors or leave crucial tasks undone on purpose. Many times, however, accidents can be prevented by having someone else look at a project or plan. Just like in school, having someone check your work helps you avoid mistakes. And, some mistakes lead to accidents.
The NESC team includes experts from NASA and other government agencies, national laboratories, universities and consulting firms. The country's best experts work together to resolve the challenges NASA faces to keep projects as safe as possible.
What does the NESC do? NESC reviews products and procedures to evaluate their engineering suitability or safety. These in-depth, second-look technical reviews, as they're called, help spot problems before the products or procedures are put into or returned to service. The engineers and scientists who work for NESC are staffed at the management office located at the Langley Research Center in Virginia and at every other NASA center. These highly proficient and skilled experts can travel to wherever their expertise is most needed, with a supply of state-of-the-art tools and methods to help others in the Agency to evaluate products or develop safe procedures.
You might think that NESC focuses its efforts exclusively on Space Shuttle safety projects, but that's just a part of its work. NESC is available for use by any program or project in the agency and has also done technical review work for the CALIPSO (short for Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations) satellite, the Mars Exploration Rovers and the X-43 hypersonic flight vehicle to name a few.
Image to right: NASA looks at the Earth in many ways, one of which being the CALIPSO satellite. Credit: NASA
Whenever the NESC receives a request for action, the material is presented to the review board. About 20 senior members discuss the situation and come up with the best solution to create a safe plan or process. Occasionally, NESC issues reports that summarize the concerns they've reviewed in recent months and post these on a Web site for all to read.
NESC wants to improve safety by testing, analyzing and evaluating various projects. These reviews will help the agency determine if anything should be changed or corrected to make it safer. The evaluators will also look for problems trends or issues they may have seen elsewhere within NASA programs. NESC provides several services to NASA centers, including:
- Technical inspections: Technical inspectors look for problems before they come up. Engineers and scientists use a variety of specialized tools and technologies to check details.
- Technical support: NESC has many experts and resources to share with NASA centers. When you call a product's technical support hotline, you are able to speak with someone who knows all about the product in question and can offer suggestions for getting the safest or most productive use from the item. NESC technical support does the same type of thing.
- Technical Advocacy: NESC encourages NASA project managers to take action and try new ideas to increase safety.
- Dissenting Opinions: NESC members aren't afraid to disagree on aspects of projects they're reviewing. They operate independently from NASA administrators, so they can report unpopular findings and not worry that the information might upset someone.
- Mishap Investigations: The NESC may be asked to lead investigations if an accident occurs. NESC members know the official procedures for investigating mishaps and will ensure that all rules are followed and assure the right tools are brought to bear in determining the root causes of mishaps.