Charlie Harlan's Thoughts on Spaceflight Safety

June 29, 1997
Mr. Frederick D. Gregory
Associate Administrator for Safety and Mission Assurance
NASA Headquarters
Washington, DC 20564-0001

Dear Fred:

Thank you so much for the kind words in your letter of June 24, 1997 and the exceptionally nice Bohemian crystal bowl that accompanied it. I have placed it on my desk in a prominent place where I can enjoy its beauty as I am working. I do appreciate your thoughtfulness and the effort you made in sending me this most delightful award.

Since I do not get to see you or communicate with you on a regular basis anymore, I would like to take this opportunity to mention something that I believe is of serious importance to NASA, and the Human Spaceflight Safety and Mission Assurance Program. I am sure that the current crisis in the Mir program is probably foremost in your mind. I am extremely concerned about the safety risks associated with continued operation of the Phase I Shuttle/Mir Program. There already have been two incidents this year where the crew has been placed in a basic survival situation. The Mir station is clearly showing significant degradation as it continues to operate beyond its design lifetime. In addition, the decline in the basic infrastructure of the Russian Space Program been well documented in numerous publications, and even in public statements by some Russian space officials.

When NASA originally began the Shuttle/Mir Program, no rigorous safety analysis or risk analysis was accomplished. NASA decided based on the then understood historical performance of safe Mir operations to accept that record as a given. This was done by a subjective review process unlike the systematic safety and reliability analytical techniques utilized for U.S. human spaceflight. If you remember, at that time the Russians were not always forthright about their systems failures or some of the problems they had in the past. The decision was made at the highest levels of NASA, and the formal safety analysis that was established for the Phase I Program was only for the new joint operations activities, new experiments, and new procedures. The acceptance of the existing Mir safety record was driven by management judgment, and therefore for formal and structured documented risk baseline exists for the start of the program. It should be very clear to everyone that the risk level to human safety on the Mir Station has increased somewhat since the early management decisions and agreements were made.

The question becomes, what is the present risk to human safety in this program as the Mir ages and its systems continue to fail and degrade in capability, and as the Russian space program support infrastructure changes as well? What are the expectations for the risk levels to continue to change with time over the planned lifetime of Phase 1 Program? What is the current risk level as compared with the subjectively determined risk level at the start of the Program? NASA has participated in the Mir program with a lower standard as far as Safety and Mission Assurance assessment processes are concerned, and I believe that the risk levels for human safety to be somewhat higher as well. The most important and cogent question is whether the expected benefits of continued operation justify the increasing risk to human safety that are apparent with current operations on the Shuttle/Mir Phase 1 Program.

Early on in the Phase 1 program, some of the flight activities were considered to be in the development path for the International Space Station. The Russian docking system has now been successfully integrated into the Space Shuttle and demonstrated on several flights. The Russian and U.S. operations teams have learned to work together in a real time sense, and have established a successful and functional joint operations approach. I can think of nothing at this point in the Phase 1 Program that is in the critical path for the continued development and beginning of flight operations for the International Space Station. The test of that premise is to answer the question whether or not NASA would not be able to continue with the development of the Space Station if Mir was lost for some reason.

Another purpose for NASA in using Mir during the Phase 1 Program has been the Life Sciences research that unfortunately has had to be curtailed during the times that Mir has had inflight systems problems and contingencies. Likewise, I would doubt that there is any mandatory Life Sciences research remaining on Mir in order to support the development of the Space Station.

The third and most compelling rationale for the establishment of the Phase 1 Program was apparently based on our Government's foreign policy objectives. The measurement and evaluation process for achievement of success in this arena is by a process and at a Government level that no doubt makes it difficult for NASA to effectively work with. The solutions set of possibilities for this Administration to meet the intent of its foreign policy objectives for Russia is probably rich with alternatives, other than the continuation of the Phase 1 Shuttle/Mir Program, that could serve a similar purpose without placing human life at risk levels now seen. I cannot imagine a rational decision making process that could not or would not consider other approaches to achieving our Government's needs in this area. The Phase 1 Program may be the easiest perceived approach that our Government could take to meet important international agreements; but considering the increase in risk for all involved, it is time to consider other alternatives. Even given the fact that the Russians have a considerable amount of national pride in operating the Mir Station, there is a point where recognizing the time to go on to other programs is better that suffering an untimely and perhaps disastrous failure while attempting to hang on to a program that has reached the limit of its productive and safe life.

The risk level to the crew on the Mir station is obviously changing with time. The crew has been put in a basic survival mode a couple of times this year already. The Mir is faced with loss of redundancy for some functions, degraded capability in some functions, and is continuing to degrade with time. NASA publicly has the appearance of trying to characterize the recent dramatic events of Mir operations in a way to minimize the idea that there is any safety concern for the crew as a result of the current Mir status. I believe that this stretches the limits of credibility without having a good risk baseline and risk assessment available that supports this premise. High NASA officials and other pundits are quoted in the media as attempting to characterize the dangerous and potentially life threatening situations as "an opportunity to learn for ISS and how to work effectively with the Russians". In the past, we have relied on training and simulations for this kind of opportunity rather than real life emergencies of the survival category. Of course we have to deal with real life emergencies at times, and we do learn from them, but we shouldn't ever view them as an opportunity. Those of us in the safety profession would view these events as a failure of the management system and our Safety and Mission Assurance process which should be based on disciplined risk assessment methods, hazard elimination, risk mitigation, and continuous risk reduction throughout the life of the Program.

NASA is making upgrades on the Shuttle flight and ground systems to enhance safety and reduce risk. This is a major Agency initiative. This activity has been given high visibility both within NASA, the Congress, and with outside review groups. Risk reduction is a part of any proper risk management program and it is being done right for the Shuttle. I have not seen a risk reduction program for the Mir operations. The risk level for Mir flight operations is increasing rather than being reduced. NASA management has accepted a different standard for human safety for the Phase 1 Shuttle/Mir Program than it has been willing to accept foe either the Shuttle or the International Space Station.

Another factor that perhaps complicates NASA's and the Government's evaluation of the current Mir situation is that it represents a significant technical and operations challenge. NASA and its Russian counterparts are especially good at solving complex problems and coming to the rescue. I can see the enthusiasm and the adrenaline flowing in the NASA team in working on the fixes for the current problems. The attention and focus of the NASA team tends to be concentrated on resolution of the immediate problems. This is a good and important strength that the Agency has, and it is necessary to make spaceflight programs successful. NASA must be careful that this zeal to resolve these operational problems of Mir do not get in the way of a careful and studied assessment of the risks involved with the continued operation of the Mir. Someone has to step back and look at the big picture and as the question whether or not the return on continued operations of the Mir is worth both the human risk and the dollar cost.

I believe that it is mandatory that NASA put in the effort to develop a rigorous and disciplined risk assessment for the Mir station that will consider the current and expected changes for the remainder of the planned flight program. Due to the present high perceived safety risk levels, this should be accomplished ASAP! The risk assessment should be characterized in a way that rational and credible decisions can be made regarding the continuation or termination of Shuttle/Mir operations. NASA should be very aware of every instance where it has lowered its standards for human safety for the Mir operations in comparison with the standards required for its own programs and make an informed decision for each case. It is time to correct the deficiencies in the safety and mission assurance processes for the Phase 1 Program.

I personally do not see any compelling NASA need for continuation of joint operations with Mir, especially in light of the perceived risk to human life involved. NASA and Russia could both probably well use the cost savings to help with the funding shortfalls on the development of the International Space Station. Finally, should it become clear to NASA that the safety risks for operation with Mir are increasing, NASA management should have the guts to challenge the political basis for this specific activity and offer other alternatives programs for cooperation with the Russian Space Program to the Administration.

Fred, thanks again for so graciously sending me the crystal dish. It is a very nice thought and I will certainly treasure it for a long time to come.

Sincerely [signed]
Charlie Harlin

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on June 29, 1997 1:08 PM.

Mir Status Report 27 June 1997 was the previous entry in this blog.

Letter to Dan Goldin About Neutral Buoyancy Simulator Closure is the next entry in this blog.

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