Monday, July 25, 2011

What did we learn from the Space Shuttle program

The NASA Space Shuttle program ended this past week with STS-135.  I still remember watching the shuttle launches as a boy.  They filled my head with dreams of space exploration and new discoveries.  As I grew older I took an interest in engineering and studied to be one in a university.  There I discovered the enormity of the engineering marvel that was the Space Shuttle program.

Discover published an article this week on what was the debacle of the Space Shuttle program.  A lot of good and interesting points made by Amos Zeeberg in this article.  The Space Shuttle was originally designed to be a cost effective way of getting man and technology into space.  The program definitely did not deliver on that promise or projection.  Also the Space Shuttle was considered to have only a risk of failure of 1 in 100,000.  I don't know if that is remotely true.  As we unfortunately know the true risk of failure was 2 in 135.  Space travel is risky no matter how it is done.

So from an engineer's point of view, albeit one that was not involved with the space program, what can we really learn from the Shuttle Program.  I believe applying Industrial Engineer and Operations Research principles we could come to some conclusions.  I don't personally think the Shuttle missions were a total debacle.  As an Engineer there is always something to learn even if there is a failure.  Edison said it best that he didn't fail 1000 times trying to develop a light bulb, only he learned 1000 ways on how not to build one.

Firstly, risk needs to be measured from a micro and macro perspective.  There are many systems that lead to failure.  Each system has a life all of its own.  The risk could be as simple as an O-Ring to as complicated as a practical study of landing on the Moon.  Risks can be measured and weighed from different perspectives of time, cost, and quality of delivery of promise.  When all risks are measured than perspective can be put into place as to delivery of a promise.  Perhaps the Shuttle program didn't deliver on all promises.  Yet it did prove many things that reusable vehicles were ahead of its time.  We can learn a lot from the Shuttle Program on examining risks of promise and making sure that we evaluate different objectives and goals.

Secondly, engineering and management should be a cultivated relationship that needs to understand each others' strengths and goals.  Engineering has the design in its best interest.  Management has the mission in its best interest.  The design and mission are unique and have there own set of goals.  Yes there are going to be risks weighed in both the design and mission.  The complexity is when merging the risks of the design and mission together.  The magnitude of the NASA Space Shuttle Program magnified the relationship between engineering and management.  The best and the worst was brought to light.  The engineering marvel of creating a reusable vehicle is magnificent.  The managerial feat of sending man into space with a reusable vehicle on more than 100 missions is not insignificant.  The importance of merging design and mission together was a great learning experience with the Space Shuttle program.  We have already seen fruits of that success.  Missions to Mars and beyond the Solar System have proven that success.

The NASA Shuttle Program was not an outright debacle.  There was a lot to learn from the process.  No it did not deliver on all initial expectations.  Yet it did deliver on this young boy's dreams of discovery and knowledge.  Once an Engineer, always an Engineer.  I hope that we will never cease to learn and improve from our failures.

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