Date: Mon, 12 Jan 87 19:38:11 pst
Subject: Safety Officers and "Oversight"
In the February Analog (one of the science-fiction magazines), there is
an interesting and partially relevant non-fiction article by Harry Stine.
The relevant part is his discussion of certain shuttle safety issues.
He was one of the people saying all along that NASA had problems, and in
particular he wrote (under his penname "Lee Correy") the SF novel "Shuttle
Down", which exposed how utterly unprepared NASA was for an emergency
landing by a Vandenberg-launched shuttle. (The only viable landing spot
is Easter Island, where landing would have been difficult and dangerous
and recovery of the orbiter would have been a monumental problem, since
no thought had been given to the issue.) He notes:
"There's talk of a 'safety oversight committee' to review each space
shuttle mission before it's launched. But isn't that exactly what NASA
had when the Challenger blew up?
"Safety committees don't work in the crunch. One person finally has to
decide go-no-go and accept the responsibility which cannot and must not
be spread among a committee, where no single person is accountable if
something goes wrong..."
He goes on to cite his credentials, including spending some years as Range
Safety Officer at White Sands, and being chairman of the group that wrote
the standard DoD range-safety rules for rocket ranges.
"There have been some gut-wrenching occurrences. One night I told a
well known and politically powerful upper-air scientist [that winds were
too high and] the unguided Aerobee would impact off the range. Therefore,
I told him he should cancel ... He said he was Project Scientist, he
needed the data, the delay would result in a budget over-run, and
therefore he was going to launch. I replied that I would push the destruct
button the instant the rocket cleared the launch tower. He launched. I
pushed the button. The commanding officer called me into his office the
next morning and asked me what happened; I told him. Nothing more was
said because the Word of the Safety Officer is as the Word of God. There
is no tribunal that can over-rule or second-guess a Safety Officer.
There can be no retribution against the Safety Officer. He calls the
shots. If he calls too many unsafe ones, the range commander ... transfers
him to some other position.
"That decades-old policy works very well. People can be easily trained
to use it and be unafraid of invoking it when the need arises. ...
"A safety oversight committee cannot prevent another space shuttle
accident. It can either delay the program so badly that it won't make
any difference in the long run, or it will mean that nothing gets launched.
... If the automotive industry had a government safety oversight committee
riding herd on it, we'd all be walking."
The rest of the article discusses other issues, like how to get the space
program in general moving again. One other point he does raise is that
NASA tends to be asked for its opinion on the viability and reliability
of private launch-vehicle schemes, and as you would expect, its assessments
of potential competitors tend to be rather negative...
Henry Spencer @ U of Toronto Zoology