From Rocket Failures to Oil Spills, What Can Space Teach Us Here on Earth?

This week BP settled government charges against the petroleum company for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill for $18.7 billion, the largest ever for environmental claims. I can’t help comparing that disaster to the losses our space program suffered. What does an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico have to do with space? A lot, actually.

You’ve probably seen or heard NASA officials, owners of private companies manufacturing rockets and space vehicles, and astronauts like me repeatedly saying “space is hard” as an explanation when rocket launches don’t go as planned. For the millions of people who are not insiders, though, that probably doesn’t answer their questions about what went wrong or why it wasn’t caught.

The easy answer about why space is hard involves talking about the extremes of space: the deep vacuum, the temperature fluctuations, the total isolation, and the velocities required to reach and maintain low-earth orbit. All that is true, but what really makes space is hard is trying to do all that and keep a belly button safe to and from his or her destination.

Here’s the challenge: The safety of astronauts and completion of mission objectives rely on the humans who manufacture the hardware, create the processes, and engineer the technology to carry out the mission.  But designing a vehicle that will work isn’t enough. How do you make sure it will work as intended every time, even as it and its components age or become damaged. That requires rigorous interrogation, review and systemic improvements. Some industries, such as aerospace, seriously deploy risk assessment and mitigation. Others, not so much.

When it matters, what stands between best intentions and the world of unknowns?

Don’t get me wrong, as a person who has been both in space and on an oil rig, I know technical challenges are not trivial.  When NASA, BP or any other large organization undertakes these endeavors, they need more than a token safety or quality effort.  What they need, on the day it matters, is something that stands between the best intentions of design and the reality of the world of unknowns.  The pressures creating lapses in adherence to what is really important that produced the Challenger, Columbia and even Deep Water Horizon disasters don’t matter when compared to the loss of human life.

What was and is needed are individuals who can independently review and evaluate technical matters. These auditors can appreciate both the broad implications associated with a system failure as well as the minute details that would cause a component to malfunction. That means being able to comprehend, for example, the implications of an almost invisible hole or crack in a component that could release a piece of metal measuring only millimeters and cause a product or entire structure to break down and cause harm.  It’s this attention to detail that provides the necessary rigor to understand and assess uncertainties in a way that will lead to a risk-mitigation plan.

When undertaking hard tasks, you will never remove all danger. Sending humans into space or onto oil rigs in the ocean are by definition high-risk endeavors. To avoid all peril, we would have to stop doing those things entirely. Since we are not prepared to do that, our next best option is to do everything we can to make them as safe and efficient as possible.  The burden isn’t just on the independent auditors, but by everyone within the organization -- trenches to C-suite, all should share the common goal.

Terrestrial companies don’t differ greatly from space organizations.

Deploying mission assurance in terrestrial companies is our next frontier. Mission assurance is the methodical technique for analyzing all safety and mission related aspects of products, projects and processes. It didn’t take our space program many failures to realize that the cost of developing mission assurance procedures second to none is incomparable to the grief and expense from lost colleagues and equipment when missions fail. But how many other industries have adopted similar rigor? Are we to assume that some accept the loss of life and waste that come with risk and plan for it by creating huge war chests to pay for future litigation? There are other options. Terrestrial companies at their core are not that different from space industries.

The Lessons Learned in Space™ can transfer to what we do here on Earth. However, independence is worthless unless the examination process is endorsed, embraced and supported by the organization’s leaders. If fears about cost, about damage to reputation, about shareholder approval, to name a few, prevail, a corporation’s mission assurance program will never be as successful as it could be.  When NASA found priorities in schedule and budget pressures, we lost 40% of our country’s shuttle fleet.

After the dust settled with the Deep Water Horizon accident, BP lost 11 crewmember and 200 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the Gulf, impacting the ocean and coastline to this day. David Uhlmann, former chief of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section, told USA Today, “The message is absolutely clear: companies must place far more emphasis on environmental protection and safety than BP did prior to the Gulf oil spill.” In an interview on PBS’s Frontline, Uhlmann called BP a “repeat offender.”

Money seldom fixes the real losses from inadequate mission assurance.

For $18.7 billion, BP could have employed and paid 4,155 mission assurance experts $150,000 a year for 30 years. Reputation, coastline and loss of life would not even be part of the discussion, let alone the impact to residents along the coast that depend on the Gulf for their very existence.

Few companies will ever need to go that that extreme. But isn’t it time for leaders of forward-thinking corporations engaged in industries that effect people -- like oil and gas exploration, or food production, or consumer product manufacturing -- at least to begin a dialogue about independent mission assurance-like protocols at their companies if they are not already in place? No one wants to be another BP or to be in its shoes. For terrestrial companies, the lesson learned because space is hard is to Think Like an Astronaut.™


For the third time in less than a year, a rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station was unable to complete its mission, this time a SpaceX Falcon rocket failing minutes after liftoff. In May, Russia’s Progress 59 cargo craft spun out of control and eventually burned up in the earth’s atmosphere. Last October, an Orbital Science Antares rocket failed just after launch.  We are all thankful no lives were lost and the ISS astronauts’ supplies have not reached dangerously low levels. Still, these failures must be raising stress levels for everyone in the international space community.

As those of use in the community know, space exploration is hard, and getting a spacecraft off the ground and into space in one piece is an astounding feat requiring thousands of hours of preparation and the ingenuity and work from hundreds of people. Every failure is exhaustively investigated and every assumption about what might have gone wrong fully explored.  Still, there are so many other “What Ifs” that remain.

“There’s really no commonality across those three events,” NASA’s Associate Administrator William H. Gerstenmaier told Forbes, because space “is a very demanding environment.” SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk tweeted that “an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank” caused the failure, but that upon thorough analysis, more information would be forthcoming. SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell agreed, but added during the midday press conference that it is too early to know the exact cause. They all understand the importance of rigorously evaluating every uncompleted mission to apprehend and correct system failures.

In 2012, a Wired magazine article made much of the difference between SpaceX’s cutting-edge technology, comparing it to competitors’ use of “legacy components” and “Russian rocket engines that were made in the ‘60s.” Such characterizations may lead many to believe that new technology is always the best technology. Whether or not that is true, it often has very little to do with why missions fail. Granted, SpaceX had six successful mission to the ISS before today’s failure. But as the events since last October have demonstrated, a single breakdown may erase many years of success. Today’s failure proves that new components can be just as fallible as older technologies.

These events serve to remind us of the challenges we face in space’s unforgiving environment to provide safe commercial spaceflight. They should not be about pitting competitor against competitor to determine who has the highest success rate. They are not about new technology versus old technology or cutting-edge design versus proven workhorses. And they are certainly not about U.S or Russian supremacy. They are about a community of humans who endeavor to learn and share in exploring and closing the “What if” gap of knowledge.

What we should learn from today is that we can’t get complaisant. Nor can we let this string of “failures” halt the progress we have made toward sustained manned spaceflight. The principles of mission assurance become more important than ever. Keep testing. Keep investigating every failed launch. Check once, check again, and then one more time. Reduce as thoroughly as possible the chance for human error by ensuring every belly button involved has the information, the procedure and the authority to speak up when he or she knows something is wrong. Embrace change when needed.

While I am disappointed by these failures, I am also encouraged when we use them to push the envelope of our knowledge about space exploration further and come even closer to our vision of commercial human spaceflight and the continued endeavor of human space exploration.

Godspeed SpaceX. Godspeed Orbital Sciences. Godspeed Roscosmos. And Godspeed NASA.