The risky business of space

Talking with risk practitioners in the space industry about how their industry takes and manages risk is always invigorating and a terrific learning experience. Many of the approaches and solutions learned from them can be applied to other risk management activities.

Yes, the industry deals with rocket science, but there are many aspects of its approach to risk that are similar to the challenges and opportunities seen in other industries.

Evolving risk and reward

Risk and reward in manned space flight have changed tremendously since the 1960s. Putting people into space is inherently dangerous and the known risks are significant. There are also ‘known unknowns’ for some of the predicted new ventures, such as a manned mission to Mars.

In the 1950s and 60s, the ‘space race’ between the US and the Soviets was entwined with the Cold War. It was a high strategic priority for both nations, battled out in full view of the world (the open and public nature of the space industry continues to this day).

With the technology available at the time, it was clear that astronauts being sent to the moon had a very high chance of not coming home – something that these brave people accepted. Although the risks were publicly acknowledged, they were hard to quantify as anything more specific than ‘high’.

Improvements in quantifying risk

Models developed before the introduction of the space shuttle programme in the 1980s calculated between a 1 in 500 and a 1 in 5,000 chance of a loss-of-crew event. However, with the help of powerful computing and modelling, the space industry has improved its quantifying of risk. Through better knowledge and availability of data for modelling, it is now known that the risk of the early shuttle flights was statistically much higher – as high as a 1 in 9 chance of a catastrophic failure during the first nine missions.

A huge amount of effort continues to go into quantifying loss-of-crew risk since the Challenger disaster in 1986, and the understanding of safety in manned spaceflight continues to improve. Towards the end of the shuttle programme the team estimated a 1 in 90 probability of a loss-of-crew event. When the Columbia shuttle disasteroccurred in 2003, it was already very clear to the public that the risks of the shuttle programme were very high.

Accepting the risks involved

Whilst cutting edge technology is used in the space industry, the way we transport people into space remains rather crude and highly dangerous – using rockets with highly combustible fuel and oxygen, which explode into incredibly forceful propulsion.

Organisations in the space industry continue to work to reduce the risk of human spaceflight systems, but it is not possible to eliminate all risk. A report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board which examined the issue included this insight: “While risk can often be reduced or controlled, there comes a point where the removal of all risk is either impossible or so impractical that it completely undermines the nature of what NASA was created to do, and that is to pioneer the future.”

ForNASA’s commercial crew programmeof the modern day, safety is a continual focus, but it is clearly still very risky. The space industry doesn’t hide from the high risks involved in manned spaceflight. Access to information about this and other programmes is freely available to the public, such as in this example update published by NASA.

Common risk areas

In the space industry, the focus in risk management is on getting the foundations of culture and trust right, then building upon that. This covers a number of areas that other risk managers can consider within their own industry:

1. Face up to your risks

A key piece of learning that all risk managers can take from NASA is that businesses need to face up to their risks. By understanding and quantifying them, business leaders can make informed decisions. The space industry is specific in its quantification of risk (chances of ‘1 in…’ rather than a vague ‘there could be…’ or ‘there might be…’) and all organisations would do well to take the same approach.

2. Understand why a risk is worth taking

Awareness of a risk and a shared interpretation of what it is and its severity are critically important. If risks are significant and large, what makes them worth taking? In the space industry the shared understanding of risk is connected to achieving major and visionary goals for humanity. For example, significant scientific experiments are conducted on the International Space Station(ISS) including research into treatments for cancer and the building blocks of life. Many things done in space can only be done there. Manned spaceflight clearly has its ‘why’.

3. A good culture and a strong bond of trust is fundamental

When I asked a former NASA risk manager for the ISS about the foundations for managing risk, he emphasised the importance of good relationships, trust, appreciating and taking into account different views and experiences, and being open to changing your approach. Even when something has been working well for years, improvements can still be made by seeking out new points of view and dissenting opinions.

4. Evaluate and re-evaluate

It’s important to evaluate and re-evaluate the reasons and assumptions for risks. In all industries things change – and often quickly. People change roles, regulations are updated, ecosystems evolve and views of stakeholders may change.

5. Many of our risks are the same

Businesses in the space industry face many similar risks to those in other industries. They have external constraints, schedule and cost risk, supply chain risk, quality risk, operations risk and cyber risk (although in some respects the cyber threat in the space industry may be surprisingly low, as much of its technology is not easily transferable to other industries and there is no sensitive person-identifiable data involved).

6. Risk techniques and tools are transferable

Many risk techniques and tools are applicable across a number of industries and the use of quantitative risk in the space industry is a great example. As an ex-NASA risk manager for the ISS stressed recently, the quantification of risk can provide great insights but it requires effort and takes time and commitment from everyone (including managers) to be effective.

Gareth Byattis one of the IRM’s global ambassadors. He is based in Sydney, and has 20 years’ experience in international risk and project management. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the IRM’s official position

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