Spacelift Washington: The Future of Shuttle Safety (Part I) A Conversation with Richard Blomberg

Spacelift Washington
Spacelift Washington Archive
WASHINGTON – As it has done every spring for more than 30 years, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released a report this past spring addressing the current status of safety within NASA's human spaceflight program.

ASAP had both praise and concern for space shuttle operations. Praise in that shuttle operations continue to be driven by safety needs and not schedule pressures. Worries about, in the words of the report, "the strongest safety concern the Panel has voiced in the 15 years I was involved with it."

The "I" in that statement belonged to Richard D. Blomberg, President of the consulting firm Dunlap and Associates, Inc., and the Former Chair of the ASAP panel. In fact, Blomberg's tenure ended with the release of the spring report. Blomberg subsequently testified in 2002 before the House Aeronautics and Space Science Subcommittee, giving additional details to his panel's worries.

"In all of the years of my involvement, I have never been as concerned for space shuttle safety as I am right now," Blomberg told the Congress. "That concern is not for the present flight or the next, or perhaps the one after that," he said, chillingly. "In fact one of the roots of my concern is that nobody will know for sure when the safety margin has been eroded too far."

He then added this less than rosy concern: "All of my instincts, however, suggest that the current approach is planting the seeds for future danger."

Since then, Sean O'Keefe's administration has moved to address the ASAP issues by requesting a specific series of actions that could be undertaken now. It has also begun to review the existence of the shuttle's Space Flight Operations Contract (SFOC), whose primary term ended this fall.

NASA gave SFOC contractor, United Space Alliance, a 2-year extension while reviewing whether or not to either renew the contract completely, recompete it to bid, or rearrange the structure of the contract for new types of competitive bidding. When asked why SFOC needed possible overhauling, O'Keefe has said introducing greater competition would be both healthy and productive for the agency and the shuttle program.

The entire issue of shuttle operations and possible potential 'commercialization' has been at the center of a recent major study on the winged craft's future, done for NASA by the Rand Corporation. NASA, under O'Keefe, has signaled that a wide-ranging overhaul of shuttle management was likely, of which the SFOC was but one element of the larger shuttle operations and management structure.

With the exception of the establishment of SFOC and the creation of USA from its parent companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin, that management structure has not been substantially changed since the post- STS-51-L Space Shuttle program overhaul.

The result, in short, has been increasingly more reliable Space Shuttle launch campaigns, and safer, less expensive shuttle operations, as well as substantial cost savings.

NASA, under the O'Keefe administration and in the aftermath of the summer 2002 Rand Report, appears on a path to change all or part of that, either in bold strokes or in increments.

To look at this issue in depth, Spacelift Washington recently talked with Blomberg about his concerns for the Space Shuttle's future safety prospects. He spoke with this editor from his office in Connecticut.

Q: Has the 'privatization' or semi-commercialization of shuttle operations thus far made the shuttle a safer craft, or improved the program demonstrably?

A: Well, I can't really fully agree that the SFOC has been privatized. It has been a vertical integration of a lot of the contractors. But the basic model is still the same. You have a government entity that is making important decisions such as when to launch, and who the crews will be, and so forth. They are overseeing the contractors. So the contracting relationship hasn't changed. But I don't really view that as privatization. The responsibilities have not shifted, especially in the safety area, have not shifted that dramatically. I do think the SFOC has been successful; there has been a basic increase in attention to safety. And the priorities within safety is and has been at quite an appropriate level. Partly, in my personal belief the SFOC folks know that it's very important to their long-term welfare as well as to the welfare of the program and the country to maintain safe space shuttle operations. So the incentive for safety is certainly there among all parties. And I think the SFOC has adopted a stringent, appropriate approach to safety.

Q: IF NASA makes a decision, at the end of the current 2-year SFOC contract extension to either recompete SFOC in whole or in part, or break it up in some segmented way, structural way, do you see any risks in pursuing that?

A: Yes. I do. I am a believer that transition of the established programs, particularly safety programs always entails risk; therefore should be avoided unless there is some compelling reason to do so. And I think if you go back and look at some of the ASAP panel's earlier reports, at the time SFOC was contemplated going from the SPC to the SFOC, one of the things we cautioned about then was then, you are going to be undergoing a transition, and it's traumatic, distracting, you have an established enterprise that is now going to be changing, and that is the time when things can slip through the cracks. And so any transition, one worries as far as whether the transition is worth doing, you'd have to look at what the supposed gains from it would be to determine whether accepting those risks is reasonable.

Q: Of course no decision about SFOC has been made yet by NASA. But some suggestions have been made that the current rationale for either changing the SFOC contract, or recompeting part of it, isn't in pursuit of additional cost savings, or safety, although such would be welcomed. The reason for the change some are suggesting is to introduce greater competition in the process, in the bidding and subsequent contract operations. If that is the approach NASA takes with the future of SFOC, what's your view of doing that, for such a reason? For competitiveness.

A: From my personal perspective, and I don't represent myself certainly as an expert in aerospace industrial competition, I just don't find that idea tremendously credible. Well, no. 1. Whenever large transitions take place, when you went from the SPC to the SFOC, the vast majority of personnel stays the same. It was just a re-badging process. Now, you can't go out; this is not the equivalent of a start-up airline, where you can go out and find licensed mechanics; A&P folks who can come in and have the right certificates to deal with a DC-9 or a 757 or whatever your aircraft type is, and in a very short time configure them to do the proper work. This a unique system. You can't go out and say there is another whole group of people out there with shuttle experience. And so, re-badging people is just and has always been a very traumatic thing. They'll worry about the coordination of benefits; their retirement plans. They'll worry about their new management, if they will try to squeeze them for additional concessions, and so on and so forth. That is just a major distraction. It was a major distraction when United Space Alliance took over; they did an excellent job and had a very good Human Resources team working on it. But I think even if you were to ask them, they would say it was a tough time. Why go through it again? If you are not going to get any major cost benefits, and you are not going to get any safety benefits, what difference does it make whose badge you're wearing? But I'm certainly not a politician. And I'm not an expert in that area. But it would sure concern me from a safety standpoint. Makes no sense to me.

Q: Do you think NASA is putting aside sufficient resources for space shuttle upgrades in the future?

A: No. Absolutely not. One of the major concerns I have about the long-term safety of the space shuttle is the continuity of personnel, and their long-term experience. An awful lot of people that are retiring who have treasure-trove of shuttle knowledge in their head because they were in it (the program) from the beginning. And now, if you further transition that to a management structure that would not be familiar with space shuttle, you are exacerbating that problem. It's not just the aging hardware and infrastructure, Frank, it's the loss of long-term capability.

Q: Do you have any idea how to attract more young people into shuttle operations?

A: One way is certainly to give those people the feeling that they have career here, not just a temporary job. One of the reasons, in both my Congressional testimony and the panel's report is we spoke so much about committing now to the fact that this vehicle is going to fly until 2020. There is no other vehicle on the drawing board, no other vehicle that's going to be there. If the country is going to have human spaceflight, it's going to be the shuttle. Hopefully improved and upgraded. But let's face it, it will be the basic shuttle. If you have a young person coming out, or if you have someone in their early 30s making a career change perhaps and looks and says ‘wow, there's 20 more years I could be working on the shuttle'. That's a career. But if it's done in two or three year increments, and there's always the fear of it being canceled, then why would anyone want to work on it when they could work on some more stable environment. Only the romance would still be there. And any administrative upheavals would kill that, the romance of the vehicle.

Q: What is your view of the current state of shuttle facilities?

A: I am very much concerned. That was one of the things I reported on and the panel reported on. The ground facilities and infrastructure, test equipment, pads and cable trays and cabling are all Apollo-vintage equipment. And it is really taking some heroic action to keep it running. And to think it's going to remain operational for another 20 years or more is really overly optimistic. So we are very very concerned about it. And it is one of those issues that depends on how you ask the question.

Q: In what respect?

A: The question is always asked 'Is there any immediate safety problem?' with regard to infrastructure, and the answer is probably no. But what ends up happening is you wind up with failure modes that you didn't anticipate, and you run an increased risk of possible simultaneous failures that can be safety related. You know, we've had a couple of recent examples. A hydrogen feed line on the pad, the weld that broke. That feed line was way beyond the service life that anybody anticipated. If they had anticipated that it would still be in use now, somebody would have created an inspection program for it. There was no such inspection program, because the assumption was it had much more life than it would ever be used for. There is a lot of equipment like that. There's a bracket on the pad that was found by an eagle-eyed inspector a year or so ago that is another example of things that are starting to fail that were never considered as part of the risk profile. The system was fortunate, they are working these failures. But you know, it's a little like having your head in the sand, and assume that it will never be a safety problem, it will only be a schedule issue that would prevent you from launching.

Following the release of Blomberg's report last spring, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe asked the ASAP to come back with a series of specific recommendations that could be instituted now. In part 2 of this series, we'll see what has changed since the 2002 ASAP report.

Coming soon: Part II: ASAP looks Ahead.

Editor's Note to readers: A conversation on shuttle safety -- anyone? [Feedback]

Related Links

  • 18 April 2002: Concern Expressed for Shuttle Safety, House Science Committee
  • 18 April 2002: Statement of Richard Blomberg, Former Chair, Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics
  • 18 April 2002: Statement of Frederick D. Gregory, Associate Administrator, NASA Office of Space Flight, Before the House Subcommittee on Space & Aeronautics
  • 10 September 2001: Shuttle Safety Concerns Aired Before Congress, SpaceRef
  • 6 September 2001: Statement of Richard Blomberg, Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, before the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space: Shuttle Safety
  • SPACELIFT WASHINGTON © 2002 by Frank Sietzen, Jr. The opinions expressed in this column are the author's own, and are not associated with or affiliated with any other organization or group.

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