When I traveled to NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in 1986 to
interview for a job, the potential for adventure looked big: I had dreams of
being part of the cutting edge of science and engineering, exploring frontiers
previously imagined only in science-fiction movies.
What I got instead was a deep dive into
"reliability engineering." As far as I could see, there were smart young
engineers whose primary job was to design multiple redundancies into every
critical space system. Why so many people working on something as seemingly
mundane as reliability? The answer they gave me was simple and obvious, "It's
really hard to repair anything in space."
So almost 25 years later, British
Petroleum found itself struggling to plug a catastrophic oil leak 5,000 feet
below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. But as I write this, some two months
after the initial explosion, there is still no reliable solution to stop the
leak or address the vast ecological challenge facing the gulf coast. As the
questions swirled about poor engineering, manufacturing, installation and
maintenance, the importance of that "reliability engineering" job came into
focus. I was aghast when credible news sources reported that one BP scenario
called for plugging the well with golf balls and rubber tire shards. The
Titleist solution? Seems like something that an executive would think up, not
The energy industry has invested vast
amounts of research funding into rigs capable of reaching oil and gas through
10,000 feet of water and 30,000 feet of sea bed. These are true engineering
marvels, designed by some of the most sophisticated technologists and
scientists working today. So why were these folks talking about golf balls?
Until we develop a new source of
energy, we are going to be drilling for oil in places that make repairs really
hard. The Obama Administration must bring a "failure is not an option"
mentality to deep water drilling. Companies extracting value from our earth
have a responsibility to invest some of this value into increasing the
reliability of these complex systems. And because no engineered system is ever
foolproof, we better have a good back-up plan when oil is released into the
Clearly, oil cleanup has been a low
national priority. Very little meaningful progress has been made since the
Exxon Valdez disaster 20 years ago. The Congressional Research Service reports
that federal funding for oil spill research declined by half since 1993,
falling to approximately $8 million in 2008. Where is the government risk
analysis for this trillion-dollar industry?
It is just so easy to get complacent when things are going well, but
that is just when problems tend to arise.
"Apollo 13" stands as one of the
all-time great engineering movies. It's shocking how closely the story line
parallels the BP leak - a major engineering disaster dominating the nightly
national news. One of my favorite exchanges in the film gets to the heart of
NASA Director: "This could be the worst
disaster NASA's ever experienced."
Gene Kranz (Flight Director): "With all
due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour."
Apollo 13 ended in triumph for both the
astronauts and engineers at NASA. The story in the Gulf of Mexico cannot end
well for BP or the federal government. There's just too much oil.