“Be ready to meet expectations and prepare for the unexpected.” Those were the words of NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy as she spoke virtually during a recent Safety Day at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.
Highlighting some of the agency’s top priorities for a very busy year, Melroy mentioned preparing for the launch of the Artemis mission, bringing the James Webb Space Telescope online and capturing the first science with it, and closer to at home at NASA Armstrong, preparing to fly the X-59 supersonic aircraft and the all-electric X-57 Mod II.
Before being selected as a NASA astronaut, piloting two space shuttles and commanding an orbiter mission, Melroy was a US Air Force test pilot. This is where safety was instilled in him, including best practices and the recognition that some factors are beyond people’s ability to control, such as the weather.
Melroy is familiar with Edwards Air Force Base, where she graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School in 1991. Her first assignment was to the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Test Operations, and she has spoken of her work with the C-17 Combined Force Test. The C-17 was in development testing and Melroy supervised structural testing.
“We loaded the plane with weird cargo configurations, test modes and maneuvers,” she said. “We tested the aircraft at 80% of its load limits, then performed an analysis, while setting the load limit to 100%.”
On one flight in particular, conditions were not conducive to testing, leading the team to perform a maneuver that had been advised, but not practiced. To make matters worse, it was almost sunset.
“The C-17 was one of the first heavy aircraft to use fly-by-wire controls,” she explained. “It wasn’t always predictable. We did the maneuver and all the lights went out on the warning panel. We took a step back, reset the electronic controls and determined that we had exceeded the load limits of the vehicle. “plane. We did a full flight controllability check and then landed 30 minutes after sunset in complete darkness. It was not an ideal situation.”
The decisions that led to this situation are attributed to the rush to meet an artificial deadline.
“There was some complacency late in the program. Most test mishaps don’t happen in the middle of a tough test map because everyone is so focused. It’s when there are transitions or when the team does something that’s not that difficult that situations can arise.
It was comfort that led to the maneuver that wasn’t performed in the simulator and here’s the real surprise: the maneuver took the plane to 138% of its design limit.
When Melroy commissioned the space shuttle Discovery in October 2007, she had to weigh options for fixing a solar panel.
“When it was rolled out, it snagged and started to tear,” she recalls. We stopped and it was like a boat with the sail halfway up. It’s a terrible place to be a commander and decide to fix the solar panel because it violated safety rules. I weighed the potential risk on a spacewalk versus the actual risk.
Mission Specialist Scott Parazynski, who was balancing on an extended robotic arm, worked to put the first point on the board without touching it. It wasn’t obvious to him, but Doug Wheelock was watching carefully and was able to alert Parazynski to look outside as the solar panel was about to hit him.
“A lot of times in dangerous operations, the team focuses on the dangerous and misses the big picture,” Melroy said. “We all play a role. It’s up to all of us to keep our eyes wide open. »
Melroy gave another piece of advice – wait until the danger has passed before celebrating. The crew wanted to celebrate the major accomplishment of fixing the solar panel, but Melroy reminded everyone to wait until the spacewalkers had safely passed through the airlock.
“It’s after, or in between, when everything is fine and seems normal, or something you’ve been doing all the time, when complacency takes hold of you,” she said.