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Gulf oil spill: Could NASA come to the rescue?

As the Gulf oil crisis grows, NASA’s unrivalled expertise and experience in extreme remote environments make it a great candidate to fix the leak.

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Eager to avoid the public relations disaster that decked the Bush administration in the wake of hurricane Katrina, the Obama White House has made a great effort to be on top of the oil crisis in the Gulf. The government has mobilized the usual suspects – the Department of Homeland Security and Coast Guard – and pried open the usual cans of alphabet soup: the NOAA, EPA, MMS, etc.

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But, one arrangement of letters is missing from the mix: NASA.

The “aeronautic” in the National Aeronautic and Space Administration seems to explain why: NASA’s place is in outer space, not inner space. But it may well be that these two frontiers – weightless vacuum versus watery depths – actually share common ground. While BP faces a vast environmental and financial crisis, NASA faces a profound institutional and identity crisis. These crises could lead to a mutual solution. At the very least, NASA’s experience could now be tapped to help the oil industry avoid future catastrophes.

IN PICTURES: The Gulf Oil Spill

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.