On Sunday I chatted with a friend who’s both an aviator and an oil industry insider. He reminded me that most aviation accidents are ultimately ascribed to pilot error. He’s sure that’s what happened with the BP oil spill. Not equipment or procedure failure initially, but executive error. Somebody in a key position made a bad decision. A mile underwater is a more hostile environment than the pilot’s sky; the challenge of drilling for deep sea oil is more comparable to exploring space. Bad decisions can be catastrophic. This one sure was.
The complete picture on oil spill is hard to piece together. One of the elements in the picture is that BP is a commercial company. This was mentioned on NPR yesterday. If the press asks a question such that the true answer might send BP’s stock down, the reply is “Next question.” Not like NASA, owned by the citizens of the USA and operated transparently. It occurs to me that in commercial space operations – now envisioned as the future of American space flight to low earth orbit – the same rule may apply. That will be a jolt to the system of the space-interested public. Something goes wrong (or even right), the press asks an astute question, the answer is “Next question.”
Another difference between BP (and possibly commercial space ops) and NASA: how the latter does contingency planning. NASA plans for things to go right, wrong, and every which way in between. Not so BP. It seems clear from the coverage in the media, especially the Houston Chronicle (which, serving the energy capital of the world, has had coverage in quantity and depth), that BP was not interested thorough and rigorous contingency planning. Too expensive. NASA’s managers, over half a century and through spectacularly tragic accidents, learned the hard way to plan contingencies. BP’s executives, through a rather sordid history of fatal plant accidents, oil rig disasters, and regulatory penalties, seem not to have learned the lesson. This time the consequences hit home. I’m anxiously interested to see how commercial space decision-makers fare between the hard anvil of the unforgiving space environment and the relentless hammer of the necessity to turn a profit.