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Gulf oil spill: Could NASA come to the rescue?

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Consider first the delicate issue of risk assessment: NASA has won its reputation for great caution by the dint of tragic experience. There are few organizations where the costs of error are so great, and consequently the quest for safety is so pronounced. There is a veritable culture based on testing and operational redundancy. NASA’s official motto is “For the Benefit of All,” but in the wake of the Challenger and Columbia accidents, the unofficial motto has become “Never Again.”

As a government organization, NASA’s bottom line is not financial, but prudential. Its culture diverges dramatically from the culture of, say, BP or Transocean. These firms, of course, would never knowingly gamble with the lives of their employees. With undoubted sincerity, one of Transocean’s lawyers dismissed the criticism that his client was cutting corners in pursuit of profit: “It is in [Transocean’s] interest that these tests be performed correctly and completely.”

Who among us would disagree with this claim? But who among us would disagree with the proposition that the terms “knowingly” and “interests” are neither simple nor straightforward? The limits of our “knowledge” in a particular field are usually self-imposed, while our “interests” are determined by our goals.

Take, for example, the protocols used in deepwater drilling. The Minerals Management Services (MMS) is the government agency tasked with oversight of offshore rigs. Yet recent reports reveal serious lapses. The sex and drug scandal of 2008 and special gifts from the oil industry were bad enough. But the bigger problem is that MMS left the testing criteria for the failed blowout devices – destined to become to our age what O-rings were to the age of the Challenger space shuttle that exploded in 1986 – to Transocean, the very same firm that operated these devices under the pressure of meeting schedule, budgetary, and overall programmatic concerns.

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