Archives For NASA

James and Werner

Wernher von Braun and James Webb (Image source: NASA)

The more things change, the more they stay the same…

The Saturn second stage was built by North American Aviation at its plant at Seal Beach, California, shipped to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama, and there tested to ensure that it met contract specifications. Problems developed on this piece of the Saturn effort and Wernher von Braun began intensive investigations. Essentially his engineers completely disassembled and examined every part of every stage delivered by North American to ensure no defects. This was an enormously expensive and time-consuming process, grinding the stage’s production schedule almost to a standstill and jeopardizing the Presidential timetable.

When this happened Webb told von Braun to desist, adding that “We’ve got to trust American industry.” The issue came to a showdown at a meeting where the Marshall rocket team was asked to explain its extreme measures. While doing so, one of the engineers produced a rag and told Webb that “this is what we find in this stuff.” The contractors, the Marshall engineers believed, required extensive oversight to ensure they produced the highest quality work.

And if Marshall hadn’t been so persnickety about quality? Well have a look at the post Apollo 1 fire accident investigation for the results of sacrificing quality (and safety) on the alter of schedule.


Apollo: A Retrospective Analysis, Roger D. Launius, July 1994, quoted in “This Is What We Find In This Stuff: A Designer Engineer’s View”,  Presentation, Rich Katz, Grunt Engineer NASA Office of Logic Design, FY2005 Software/Complex Electronic Hardware Standardization Conference, Norfolk, Virginia July 26-28, 2005.

NASA safety handbook cover

Way, way back in 2011 NASA published the first volume of their planned two volume epic on system safety titled strangely enough “NASA System Safety Handbook Volume 1, System Safety Framework and Concepts for Implementation“, catchy eh?

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Reflecting on learning in the aftermath of disaster

There’s been a lot of ink expended on examinations of the causes of the Challenger disaster, whose anniversary passed quietly by yesterday, but are we really the wiser for it?

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Why NASA is like British Rail

Well more precisely, the structural changes that the American space program is undergoing are akin to those that the British rail industry under went during the 1980s.

The past of space transportation in the US is fundamentally defined by NASA, a large, government owned, monolithic, monopolistic, vertically integrated organisation. Sound familiar? It ought, the same description could be applied to the United Kingdom’s British Rail of the 1980s.

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Fighter Cockpit Rear View Mirror

What the economic theory of sunk costs tells us about plan continuation bias

Plan continuation bias is a recognised and subtle cognitive bias that tends to force the continuation of an existing plan or course of action even in the face of changing conditions. In the field of aerospace it has been recognised as a significant causal factor in accidents, with a 2004 NASA study finding that in 9 out of the 19 accidents studied aircrew exhibited this behavioural bias. One explanation of this behaviour may be a version of the well known ‘sunk cost‘ economic heuristic.

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The past is prologue to the present

I’m currently reading a report prepared by MIT’s Human and Automation Labs on a conceptual design for the Altair lunar lander’s human machine interface. Continue Reading…

Why taking risk is an inherent part of the human condition

On the 6th of May 1968 Neil Armstrong stepped aboard the Lunar Lander Test Vehicle (LLTV) for a routine training mission. During the flight the vehicle went out of control and crashed with Armstrong ejecting to safety seconds before impact. Continue Reading…

For the STS 134 mission NASA has estimated a 1 in 90 chance of loss of vehicle and crew (LOCV) based on a Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA). But should we believe this number?

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