He says there's a "cultural rot" leading to shoddy safety standards.

Stronger Safety Measures

In the wake of the near disaster that occurred last week when the International Space Station (ISS) momentarily spun out of control, a former NASA employee unleashed a broadside on the agency for not taking the safety of its astronauts more seriously. 

James Oberg, a former engineer at NASA’s Mission Control Center, penned an op-ed in IEEE Spectrum criticizing what he describes as an “eroding” safety culture. He also calls for an independent investigation of the agency. 

“The safety of the system is assumed rather than verified — and consequently managers are led into missing clues, or making careless choices, that lead to disaster,” Oberg said in his article. 

Slow Cultural Rot

Oberg claimed that the recent incident involving Russia’s Nauka module is a strong indicator of a “mindset of complacency” at NASA that will eventually lead to catastrophe.  

“The NASA team has experienced that same slow cultural rot of assuming safety several times over the past decades, with hideous consequences,” he said. 

He continued, “Team members in the year leading up to the 1986 Challenger disaster (and I was deep within the Mission Control operations then) had noticed and begun voicing concerns over growing carelessness and even humorous reactions to occasional ‘stupid mistakes,’ without effect.”

Calling for Investigation

The 22-year NASA veteran and space journalist also called for a thorough investigation of the agency’s safety standards. 

“[Because] political pressures seem to be driving much of the problem, only an independent investigation with serious political heft can reverse any erosion in safety culture,” he said, going on to call on President Biden and NASA chief Bill Nelson to create an independent commission to investigate. 

It’s hard to disagree with Oberg’s persuasive piece. If nothing else, NASA and any other state-sanctioned aerospace agency should always lean more on the side of being “too safe.” After all, the recent incident with the ISS could have been way worse than it actually ended up being. Who knows how bad the next incident could be. 

READ MORE: Space Station Incident Demands Independent Investigation [IEEE Spectrum]

More on the incident: Russia Will Investigate Whether Space Station Suffered Damage During Incident


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