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.

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.

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.

Much has been written on the redundancy capacity of the blowout preventers. But two elements to the reports have been constant. First, the existing system depended on a single hydraulic line. As a result, whether there are three or 300 redundancy mechanisms, if the hydraulic line fails, they all fail. Second, the MMS never demanded the deployment of additional backup systems, despite the fact that other oil-producing countries require them.

If NASA were a country, it would have to be in this same company. Would it have ever put into service so critical a machine like the blowout preventer without adding several layers of fault protection, perhaps beyond redundancy on the device itself? Absolutely not – unless it were either impossible or the risk was deemed acceptable. Yet it is equally hard to imagine, in a world of self-regulation, corporate players like BP, Transocean, and Cameron making a very passionate case for the additional complexity and associated overhead of such systems to reduce the risk to their shareholders. Inevitably, corporate “interests” do not always dovetail with public interest.

These issues are largely legal and political, and will take months to resolve.

But NASA could play a critical role in the pressing technical issues that now confront the oil spill in the Gulf. While it appears self-evident that all appropriate government agencies should be called on to act in any national crisis, NASA remains on the sidelines nearly a month since the fatal event in the Gulf.

This is tragic.

NASA’s unrivalled expertise and experience in extreme remote environments, complex operations, high pressure complex fluid flows, data and imaging needs, robotic systems, complex analytical modeling, manufacture of critical and specialized hardware, and safety and hazards management make it a perfect fit as a key responder in the Gulf.

Not only might it have the institutional knowledge to help the oil industry with current safety management, but it might also rescue BP from such errors in the future. Who knows? It might also rescue itself.

Robert Zaretsky is a historian in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His most recent book is “Albert Camus: Elements of a life.”

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