Nearly six years have passed since Ralph Roe assumed leadership of NASA’s Engineering and Safety Center (NESC), an office formed in the wake of the Feb. 1, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia accident.

Roe, a senior space shuttle program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston at the time, was on duty the morning Columbia re-entered the atmosphere with a breach in its left wing, killing seven astronauts as it broke up over Texas.

Roe’s proximity to the tragedy taught him an indelible lesson that day, one that makes him uniquely sensitive to the mission of the NESC: objective testing, analysis and assessment of NASA’s highest-risk endeavors and a commitment to ensuring safety and mission success.

As NESC director since November 2003, Roe combines his strong background in engineering with lessons learned from the Columbia accident in an ongoing effort to deliver solid technical expertise and objective reviews of NASA programs.

As Roe put it in an interview in 2003 shortly after taking the job, “in God we trust, all others bring data.”

Independently funded with about $50 million annually, Roe’s office maintains a ready team of top engineers from NASA, industry, academia and other government organizations.

Roe spoke with Space News staff writer Amy Klamper in his office at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.


Your office provides second opinions on everything from aeronautics and robotics to manned space exploration. How is the NESC structured to handle such a broad range of technical issues? 

As we’ve evolved over the last six years, we’ve increased our involvement across the agency to include just about every high-risk issue that comes up, whether it’s a robotic mission or human spaceflight. The model that we use is the tier-team approach, which means pulling in outside experts to attack a particular problem. But we’ve institutionalized that model with these 15 discipline experts — NASA technical fellows that form a matrixed network of experts within each of their disciplines. It has grown from less than 100 folks to now 700 folks, 80 percent of which are inside NASA. But the very key element is we don’t want just NASA folks, but truly national experts in each of these engineering disciplines who we can turn to if we have a particularly difficult issue.


How many technical or engineering issues do you handle in a given year? 

We’re averaging about 50 or 60 different issues a year — that’s been pretty steady over the past four years.


Which mission areas dominate the NESC’s efforts?

About 40 percent of the work is for space operations, which is mainly shuttle and space station. About 30 percent of the work that has ramped up pretty steadily over the last three years has been Constellation. The other 30 percent is a combination of science and aeronautics and general engineering issues.

Keep in mind we were created because of the Columbia accident, and as the shuttle begins to fly out the last seven or eight missions here, we want to make sure we’ve put appropriate focus on the shuttle program. Because of the risk of the schedule and the budget, and the technical issues, we’re paying particular attention and applying the majority of our resources to make sure we’re paying attention to the programs.


In terms of safety, does it make a difference to you whether NASA retires the shuttle as planned in 2010 or lets it slide into 2011?

We need to apply our resources to make sure we’ve got enough folks participating on those issues for shuttle. Just in the last few missions, we were heavily involved in the foam loss for STS-125 and STS-127, and the flow control valve issue, and then most recently a power control assembly on the orbiter, and we’ve gotten involved in that. That’s the focus and attention we want to apply our resources to.


Did you conduct any analyses for the White House-appointed panel tasked with reviewing NASA’s human spaceflight plans, led by retired Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Norm Augustine?

If they wanted any particular analysis done, they would task through NASA’s Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation, and I would get to work that engineering action. We did that all summer. It was predominantly systems analysis work on different architectures for different types of missions, whether going to the Moon or Mars, or the flexible path or deep space approaches. We provided systems analysis for those kinds of missions.


With the Augustine panel endorsing the outsourcing of crewed missions to the private sector, do you see the NESC reaching out to assist more contractors with safety and engineering analysis in the future?


If folks ask for our help, we have gone outside the agency to help. But that’s been, out of 50 or 60, probably two or three a year where we’ve gone outside. But with something as critical as commercial crew, maybe we would do more.


What would you say about crew safety to those private space companies seeking to conduct crewed missions in low Earth orbit?

Anybody who attempts to do a crewed mission will develop, if they don’t already have it, a healthy respect for how difficult and unforgiving it is. All of the aerospace companies that work with us are well aware of that, and they know what’s required in order to keep the crew safe, and it isn’t an easy task. My sense is all those companies that have been working with us for the last 40 years appreciate that.


How has the work you do at the NESC changed since its inception?

One of the things that I didn’t anticipate at the beginning is in the last couple of years here we’ve gotten involved in design and development work, with three or four rather large tasks that have been very successful. We’ve designed and developed and now built a full-scale composite crew exploration vehicle module and are about ready to deliver it to Langley for structural testing. We’ve designed and built and performed a flight test on the Max Launch Abort System (MLAS), an alternate launch abort system for future spacecraft. And we’re conducting subscale testing of the sections of launch vehicle propellant tanks to determine shell-buckling knockdown factors, so that Ares 1 or Ares 5 or whatever launch vehicle we use, the improved knockdown factors can reduce tank weights by allowing for less conservative designs.


Is this a form of risk assessment?


I think it’s a performance enhancement that recognizes we may be able to take advantage of manufacturing techniques developed over the last three decades that we haven’t. The testing hasn’t been done yet, but we’ve found everybody, including international partners, have used the NASA guidance on what knockdown factors you should use on these tanks, so this is really going to be beneficial to the whole industry. So those things are big design development and test projects that I didn’t anticipate when we first started. And more of those will come along in the next few years, especially as we go into continued development for exploration.


Does the NESC do any work in terms of educating future engineers?

We brought in 10 young engineers on MLAS, with five years of experience or less, so they could get 18 months of hands-on design, build and test experience — that’s probably one of the best experiences we’ve had. They’ll be working here at NASA for the next 30 years and they’ll have that relatively quick experience to draw from. We also brought in mentors from the Apollo program who had experience doing the kind of rapid type of development needed at that time, and they interacted with these young engineers. So we’ve had Apollo-era engineers who went through rapid build-test philosophy, and folks like me operating shuttle and the international space station and not doing that kind of rapid design and test, and then these younger engineers who got to see the two ends of the spectrum. It was very rewarding for all of us.


Are there any aspects of your work at NESC that surprise you?

One of the worries I had at the beginning was if we would have to generate work ourselves. But what’s happened is the majority of our work is from people who are requesting us to come in and look, and which is a great sign that people recognize the value of having outside experts look at some of their most technical problems. It’s been rewarding that we’re viewed as a team that can help.


Do you see NESC getting busier over the next few years as NASA approaches what appears to be a major crossroads in its history?

I certainly want to put as many resources as I can on the shuttle, but in the meantime, we’ll probably also be expanding with Constellation, or whatever path we go down. So based on that, with the emphasis on shuttle, with the growth in exploration, our work probably will expand a little bit. With whatever they decide to transition to in exploration, we’d want to be involved up front.