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Wayne Hale Writes About Standards

Last Friday, Wayne Hale’s blog was about standards, or lack of them. It’s worth reading.

He starts out discussing some shuttle tanks that were tested at White Sands, then testing moved to KSC, and things were not the same. Standards problem-

For space flight hardware, the Shuttle program specified the standards used in the design, development, testing, and production. But for ground test equipment, the space center where the equipment was used was responsible for the standards. You might think that NASA would have a set of standards for things like welding a pressurized metal tank used in ground checkout of space flight hardware. But if you thought that you would be wrong. Much of the time NASA appears to be a loose confederation of 10 quasi independent fiefdoms, each pretty much in charge of their own business. People often ask me what would I do if I were king of NASA for a day. They expect me to say something like: build this rocket, launch that satellite. Rather I think how I would standardize the procurement processes, or the human resources procedures, or the engineering standards used across the agency. But then I always was a dreamer, tilting at impossible windmills. Launching rockets is easy; getting engineers to agree on standards is hard…

Full story…

Hale is quite right. I spent most of my engineering years working commercial airplanes (engines actually) and when I migrated to NASA I noticed this too. I probably mentioned this so much at work that people got tired of hearing it. It’s good to see someone like Hale agreeing!

NASA does have a mess on it’s hands with regard to standards. The reasons for it are many, and it’s too much to get into in a short web update. I think the main reason is that each Program comes up with it’s own, and there is no need to fit the previous standards, or standards that another center is using. What you end up with is a confused mess of agency standards and many center standards that don’t agree. Plus when meeting this cloud of requirements gets too confusing, people get waivers-which makes standards a waste of time anyway.

Each time I ran across this, I would think of what would happen if a major airline allowed each major hub in it’s system to come up with it’s own standards. Maintaining planes would be way too complicated. Every airline knows this. They write a single requirements document for the whole company, applicable worldwide. If you need to write up an item and document how it was cleared, the same forms and same procedures apply, regardless if work is done in Orlando, Paris, or Tokyo.

On the other hand, you may just ask “so what?” It’s not like the Shuttle needed to land at 100 different airports. Most NASA vehicles take just one trip anyway.

The problem Hale is writing about in this case could be worked another way. When a large air carrier wants to put an engine or airplane in a third-party shop, they maintain different quality manuals. Before work starts, an audit is done to verify line-by-line that what the repair shop will do meets the requirements of the carrier. The rest is insight and oversight, something NASA needs to get good at for SLS and commercial crew. This is just as important as standardizing standards.

There have been some initiatives to address the problem Hale wrote about, but they were not high priority. When a new Program comes along, people forget about these things and focus on doing that one program, with it’s custom standards and everything else (SEMPs).

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