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Space Park Conversations: NASA – Learning to Forget?

Astronauts (left to right) Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, pose in front of Launch Complex 34 which is housing their Saturn 1 launch vehicle. The astronauts died ten days later in a fire on the launch pad.

Dr Simon Bennett explores the nature and consequences of pressures on NASA by examining three of the space agency’s most dramatic failures in this public talk.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration is much more than a space agency. It is a showcase for American technological prowess – a means of impressing neutral countries and of drawing them into the American geopolitical orbit. The Agency is a political tool. Consequently, it is, like its counterparts, subject to political pressures, overt and covert.

In his lecture, Dr Bennett will explore the nature and consequences of these pressures by examining three of the space agency’s most dramatic failures: the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, the 1986 Challenger STS loss and the 2003 Columbia loss. After each disaster, NASA resolved to put things right. Nevertheless, over time the preconditions for mishap resurfaced, with fatal consequences. The Agency conspicuously failed to eliminate what Professor James Reason would call its latent errors or resident pathogens. Dr Bennett will explore the reasons for this failure.

  • 9 January, 2pm
  • Space Park Leicester
  • Free (All Welcome)

Dr Bennett’s qualitative analysis will draw on sociological theories of risk assessment and management, such as organising for high-reliability, safety culture, safety migration, reactive patching, normalisation of deviance, latent error, active error, passive learning, active learning, isomorphic learning, active foresight, risk imagination, coning of attention, mindlessness, mindfulness, organisational stress testing and black swan theory.

Dr Bennett will argue that while quantitative approaches to risk assessment and management are central to the management of risk in complex socio-technical ventures (such as an unmanned or manned space mission), qualitative approaches such as those mentioned above can, when integrated with quantitative approaches, improve safety margins and mission success rates – essential if a space agency, whether American, Chinese, Indian, Russian, Brazilian, Japanese, Australian or European is to retain its licence to operate, funding and reputation.

Simon Bennett directs the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester. Simon’s book, Safety in Aviation and Astronautics is out now.

Safety in Aviation and Astronautics: A Socio-technical Approach. Aviation safety and astronautics safety are taught as technical subjects informed, for the most part, by quantitative methods. Here, as in other fields, safety is often framed as an engineering problem requiring mathematics-informed solutions. This book argues that the socio-technical approach, encompassing theories grounded in sociology and psychology – such as active learning, high-reliability organising, mindfulness, leadership, followership and empowerment – has much to contribute to the safety performance of these vital industries.