WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) today told the House Science Committee that organizational changes at NASA proposed by the CAIB would have helped address a recent controversy on whether or not a crew should have been sent to the International Space Station.  Saying, “the system did not take care of this problem itself,” Admiral Harold Gehman said reorganization could ensure that similar problems in the future are fully vetted.

“A year from now or 18 months from now, when cost and schedule pressures have resumed, I don’t think we want to rely upon the intervention of management to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat,” added Gehman.  “I think we want to institutionalize a process by which these issues can be raised or sorted out without having top-level management to intervene.” 

The CAIB report recommended that NASA look at several models as it revamps its safety organization.  The hearing examined these models to learn what steps NASA could take to reorganize its operations into a more safety-focused program.  Members questioned expert witnesses about the key elements, identified by the CAIB, that are necessary for an independent and effective safety regime. The witnesses were Admiral Frank L. “Skip” Bowman, USN, Director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion (Naval Reactors) Program; Rear Admiral Paul Sullivan, USN, Deputy Commander for Ship Design Integration and Engineering, Naval Sea Systems Command; Mr. Ray F. Johnson, Vice President for Space Launch Operations for the Aerospace Corporation; Ms. Deborah L. Grubbe, Corporate Director for Safety and Health at E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., Inc. (Dupont); and Admiral Gehman. 

“I have no doubt that this Committee will have ample opportunity over the next year or so to put to use the information we gather today… NASA is just in the initial stages of putting together an organization plan, and I have complete confidence that Administrator O’Keefe has taken the CAIB recommendations to heart,” said Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY).  “But that said, I must note that I believe the initial organization ideas being circulated by NASA fall significantly short of the mark.  We look forward to working with NASA as it continues to rework its plans.”

Committee Ranking Member, Ralph Hall (D-TX) added, “Based on today’s testimony, it’s clear to me that the responsibility for protecting safety from budgetary and schedule pressures has to start at the top of an organization and flow through all levels of management.  The hearing also reinforces my belief that independent oversight has an important role to play in ensuring continued attention to safety.”

Admiral Bowman said that his Navy program probably had one of the flattest organizational structures possible and that as the chief safety officer and director of the program he learned of all safety issues in real time, as they happened, with no filter from various layers of management.

Deborah Grubbe agreed, noting that “safety culture starts at the top of the organization” and that Dupont’s leadership manages safety through intensive training of employees and recognition and reward of safety improvements and innovation.  DuPont also fosters an environment in which bringing safety problems to light is encouraged and rewarded.

Ray Johnson testified on the importance of a balance between independence and collaboration. Johnson noted that his organization is completely separate from the Air Force programs they are charged with overseeing.  Moreover, the Aerospace Corporation’s sole focus is on the safety of the space launches, but they share overarching goals with the Air Force office they work closely with.

Fighting off complacency was one of the biggest challenges cited by Rear Admiral Paul Sullivan.  Sullivan said that his program held an annual safety training session in which all employees were reminded of the demise of the submarine USS Thresher in 1963.  This accident led the Navy to create the SUBSAFE program, with the effect that the Navy has never again lost a SUBSAFE certified submarine due to a safety or maintenance problem.  By keeping the consequence of complacency at the forefront of everyone’s mind, Sullivan said that it was easy for everyone to strive for a perfect safety record.

Research Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) noted, “There are both private and public sector organizations that achieve high reliability, fault tolerance, and low fatalities, such the Navy’s nuclear submarine program and nuclear reactors. NASA could benefit by reforming its operations. Instead, it looks like NASA is planning to not so much return to flight but to business as usual. But business as usual does not work. This hearing is part of an effort to make sure that NASA does not ignore safety concerns again.”