The United States is once again sending people to the moon.
The world met the project crew Artemis II mission in early April and celebrated an upcoming 10-day journey that should both spark nostalgia and fuel a new generation’s love for crewed spaceflight.
But after multiple space disasters over the past 60 years, Project Artemis must illustrate NASA’s commitment to safety when exiting humans from Earth’s atmosphere. As a result of these disasters, NASA repeatedly changed its approach to safety, which is commendable, but often people at the agency ignored red flags and reports that could have prevented astronaut deaths. .
To that end, NASA must allow agency employees and contractors to report potential program weaknesses without fear of retaliation. The agency must ensure that reporting mechanisms are functional and responsive and that managers can and will act in the event of security issues. We hope NASA will rise to the task. Still, some NASA staff, including a whistleblower we spoke to, think the agency still has a long way to go.
NASA was not yet nine years old when a fire in the Apollo 1 The command module killed three crew members in 1967. The accident surprised the American public and many at NASA and revealed how unprepared the agency was to build more complex spacecraft. . Several people had raised concerns about the quality of the North American Aviation (NAA) prime contractor’s work and the risk of fire.
These included people who had a strong influence on the space program, such as Wernher von Braun, then director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and Air Force General Sam Phillips, then director of the Apollo Project. In a startling example from National Archives and NASA History Division documents, a project contractor had warned a NASA official that the risk of fire would be “better considered now than ever before.” Monday morning quarterbacks”.
The decision makers of the Apollo project were focused on their deadline and no one dared to do anything to delay the program. They succumbed to groupthink, as there was a lack of communication between NASA managements and a lack of attention, as critical engineering steps did not take into account the fact that three people would pilot an entirely new spacecraft. This has led engineers to ignore warning signs and managers to ignore concerns. Before the disaster, Joseph Shea, head of the Apollo Spacecraft program office, claimed that the crew smoking in the cabin was the only way to start a fire.
As noted in a 1969 interview, months after the incident NASA Administrator James Webb called the fire a “management failure” and created groups to oversee and report on the fire. project progress. He kicked out program heads, including Shea and NAA space division chief Harrison Storms. The administrator sought to shake up the management structure of the Apollo project, as the fire had shaken his confidence in senior management.
Webb called his actions after the tragedy “saving the system by fixing the procedures.”
By all appearances, NASA has become a security-focused agency. But then the shuttle explosion Challenger in 1986 shattered that assumption. The rubber O-rings that separated the shuttle’s solid rocket booster sections contracted in cold weather and malfunctioned, causing a nightmarish explosion moments after launch.
Once again, in the story of a failed whistleblower response, Roger Boisjoly and contractor Morton Thiokol’s Allan McDonald warned NASA not to launch in sub-zero temperatures. Joe Sutter, a member of the Rogers Commission that investigated the cause of the accident, concluded that NASA’s organizational structure “was a mess, with competing fiefdoms, tangled reporting lines, and no high-level leaders focused solely on on security”.
NASA paused the shuttle program for more than two years as it considered how to better identify safety risks and how to better manage safety issues. The agency, in response to a recommendation from the Rogers Commission, established a Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance Office. Still, it took a third disaster for the agency to be shaken enough to consider formalizing its safety culture.
In 2003 the shuttle Colombia ruptured on re-entry, killing the crew of seven. The explosion was attributed to foam insulation that had separated from the shuttle’s external tank during launch, striking the leading edge of a shuttle wing and shattering the tiles protecting the ship during reentry. The loose foam problem that had been known for years.
Again, NASA worked to tighten safety measures, with Columbia Accident Investigation Board member Tracy Dillinger concluding, “NASA [didn’t] have a systematic way to get feedback. In 2009, more than four decades after the Apollo fire, NASA finally created a formal safety culture program.
Perhaps complacency played a role in all three accidents, particularly those involving the Shuttle, which had become a common method of space travel. Either way, these tragedies have raised a pressing question that remains: how and why are red flags so often ignored or dismissed?
It’s an open question, a NASA security engineer tells us. The engineer has repeatedly flagged a potential fire issue through NASA notification systems and believes management is more interested in prioritizing safety than ensuring it.
In 2015, the whistleblower reported the possible fire hazard from the launch pad to a manager. Nothing has changed. The NASA engineer again reported the issue through the official NASA Safety Reporting System and to the NASA Office of Inspector General. The engineer says that instead of taking action, their manager, who was aware of the concerns, only issued strong criticism. As retaliation and career security became concerns, the NASA employee filed a complaint that was eventually escalated to the federal government’s Office of Special Counsel. They also reported their concerns to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The engineer told us it was unclear if the agency was doing anything about the issue when it was reported through NASA’s safety reporting system, because to preserve the anonymity of those who choose it, there is no formal communication process for those who do not. There is no way for the whistleblower to actively communicate with those reviewing the issue to offer context or suggestions, and the system offers minimal feedback or status updates.
Moreover, they tell us, it was only last year that anti-retaliation provisions for protected security disclosures were included.
Twenty years have passed since the Columbia crash, and each of NASA’s previous crashes was just under two decades apart. It’s a cadence that can’t be ignored because Artemis II The launch is scheduled for November 2024. Our hope is that, this time, two decades will have been enough for the astronauts on board to return home safely.
Any weaknesses in NASA’s current reporting structure must be addressed now, as we enter a new space race and pressures to compete with China and other spacefaring nations surface.
This not only requires the creation of mechanisms that effectively relay red flags to the appropriate managers, but also a top-down culture change where managers will not retaliate or hinder the careers of anyone who speaks out.
To make a minor edit to James Webb’s remarks, NASA should to strenghten the system by constantly correct procedures.
See the official portrait of the Artemis II crew released by NASA, it is impossible not to think of the incredible feat they will risk their lives to achieve. It is also impossible not to think of those they leave behind here on Earth and how imperative it is that we bring these loved ones home safely.
This is an opinion and analytical article, and the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.