Mon 7 Feb 2005
An article in today's New York Times reminded me of the appropriation of culture by NASA critics following the Columbia disaster of 2003. Investigators blamed the crash in part on a 'broken safety culture' in which the emphasis on safety was lacking and individual engineers' ability to raise safety concern and make changes was hampered. At the time I was upset over the use of the term culture to encapsulate the problem, mostly because of the tendency for bureaucrats and administrators to imply that culture could be changed by fiat. But no company can change culture through administrative action – that much seems true two years later when, despite progress in the specific areas that caused the disaster, there are lingering questions from both inside and outside the agency regarding shuttle safety.
A recent letter in Discover magazine pretty much sums up the problem as I see it. The author wrote in response to Discover naming the winning of the X-Prize by Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne as the 2nd greatest SciTech achievement of 2004. In a nutshell, he argued that the push for government regulation of private spaceflight in the wake of the X-Prize is ridiculous because of the fallacy that government regulation somehow makes for safer practices. NASA seems to prove this. I think we can safely say that ethics, market success, and PR are all powerful incentives for a private company operation out from under the cloak of government to maintain rigorous safety practices while still innovating in a way that NASA is wholly incapable of.