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NASA & U.S. Submarine Force: Benchmarking Safety
By Ned Quinn

USS Virginia (SSN-774) under construction at The Electric Boat Corporation in Groton, Conn.
Photo caption follows


Photo caption follows

(above) Stacie Greene, an extravehicular activity trainer from Johnson Space Center, discusses the STS-90 Neurolab mission with Mission Specialist Richard Linnehan overlooking Columbia’s payload bay.

When you oversee a $4.5 billion program that launches teams of astronauts into space using some of the most complicated vehicles on the planet, you have few peers.

So, whom do you turn to for advice on working your safety program? Who offers a model for the safety, quality assurance, and program management tools that you need to develop to meet current and foreseeable challenges? Whose lessons-learned can you learn from? For the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which was looking to answer these questions in 2002, the choice was clear: The U.S. Navy’s Submarine Force.

At first glance, this choice might seem counter-intuitive. NASA’s Space Shuttle Program (SSP) is focused on conducting missions in space. SSP engineers live in
a world dominated by aeronautics and zero-gravity, wind shear and superheated gasses, heat-resistant tiles and solid rocket boosters. Conversely, submarines primarily operate below the surface of the world’s oceans. There, hydrodynamics, navigational charts, ballast tanks, sonar and weapons systems, and nuclear reactors are far more important.

But, having served as the Secretary of the Navy from 1992 to 1993, the former NASA Administrator, Sean O’Keefe, knew something that most people looking in from the outside do not. While major differences inevitably exist between the submarine and human space-flight programs, there are also many, many similarities. For example, both NASA and Submarine Force programs are of high national importance, place great emphasis on human safety, and operate in hostile environments. Accordingly, both programs incorporate high-levels of system and platform redundancy. Operational integrity must be maintained despite outside pressures, and scheduling, budgetary, and political influences cannot be allowed to undermine safety considerations. Integrating modular components from multiple vendors presents significant design and safety issues. And the list goes on.

A Partnership Established

Given his unique perspective, Mr. O’Keefe was also keenly aware of the Submarine Force’s history of overcoming technical, managerial, and budgetary obstacles while maintaining a culture of safety. He mentions this as a main reason for turning to the Submarine Force in a June 13, 2002, letter to Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England.

“Today, NASA’s Space Shuttle and International Space Station program managers are facing many challenges, including maintaining product quality and safety, accomplishing required performance and safety upgrades, and maintaining a skilled and motivated workforce in the face of budget and schedule pressures,” wrote O’Keefe. “These issues are well understood by the Navy’s nuclear submarine program managers who faced similar challenges during a downturn in production in the early 1990s... I believe that NASA can learn much from the Navy’s experience.”

In August of 2002, spurred by Mr. O’Keefe’s letter, NASA and the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) embarked on a two-way exploration of safety and management issues. The group conducting the effort, known as the NASA/Navy Benchmarking Exchange (NNBE), was tasked with studying both organizations’ safety and mission assurance paradigms, risk management and work processes, organizational structures, tools, certification processes, and verification and compliance processes.

The NNBE is made up of senior representatives from NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance and NAVSEA’s 07Q Submarine Safety and Quality Assurance Division (SUBSAFE). Other NASA and Navy programs also played important roles in the effort, and continue to do so.

A report on the NNBE efforts, issued on Dec. 20, 2002, identifies elements of the SUBSAFE program that could serve as a model for NASA safety and mission assurance initiatives and points to lessons learned by SUBSAFE that can be applied to NASA efforts. Another report, released on Oct. 22, 2004, details more recent NNBE activities and NNBE Software Subgroup findings.

Subsequent reports are expected but not yet available. Topics will include a review of software safety and mission assurance for the International Space Station (ISS) program; analysis based on observation of a SUBSAFE Certification Audit; and critical evaluation of risk management, material control, work and configuration management, personnel management, and design tools and techniques.

Early Findings

After a review of the Navy’s SUBSAFE program, as reported in NNBE’s first
public report, the group identified several potential opportunities for NASA to benefit from SUBSAFE successes. These were divided into three groups: Requirements and Compliance, Lessons-Learned and Knowledge Retention, and Process Improvement.

The first group of opportunities took aim at a difference between NAVSEA’s and NASA’s concepts of operations. NAVSEA management philosophy is rooted in “clear and realistic requirements definition... and independent verification of compliance,” noted NNBE. Waivers are rarely accepted for deviations from safety-related baseline requirements, and when they are, they sometimes impose limitations on the submarine until the deviations are remedied. NASA does allow waivers to safety-related baselines and employs other management techniques to mitigate the risks involved.