Space mission - Managing risk

Space mission - Managing risk 11 July 2017

We would like to congratulate and wish good luck to Paolo Nespoli, author of this article published on the issue #9 of Making Weconomy, for his 3rd space mission on the ISS, scheduled for July 28.

Space mission - Managing risk

Baikonur, 20th November 2015

Space missions: from organising the team to preparing to manage the risk.

“The ISS does not have a military structure. A commander is appointed before the mission, and the other astronauts are on-board engineers. The Commander takes responsibility in three specific emergencies: a fire on the ISS, failure of the oxygen supply, and air contamination (e.g. by ammonia) making it impossible to breathe. The Commander ‘assumes command’ in such emergencies and takes action.

Normally, the focus is on the work that the astronauts are doing and the resources that they need. If an astronaut needs to move the mechanical arm, then everyone concentrates on this activity, ready to cooperate.
The ISS is run democratically. The activities on the space station are managed from Earth by the Flight Director, who makes the decisions. The real control centre is in Houston, where priorities, resources, etc., are determined. In normal circumstances, the astronauts mostly perform individual tasks on the ISS, so they do not always work as a team. An astronaut’s role is determined by the importance of the job they are doing. If the youngest astronaut is moving the mechanical arm, then the others are at his/her ‘service’.

Personal conflicts are rare on board – because everyone realises that they are doing a special and important job for society and for humanity. All the astronauts work to achieve the most successful and the best possible outcome. We have been trained and prepared in these areas, too. Before a mission, cohabitation tests are performed on Earth with the crew completely isolated in extreme locations, reproducing similar conditions to those in space. A vital factor in reducing personal conflict is dialogue. In space, you must immediately confer if something goes wrong. You can’t wait for the tension to mount and boil over into an impatient outburst. Immediate dialogue prevents conflict.”

Which are the five most important things to keep a firm grip on?

1. First of all, never panic. You need to detach from the emergency situation.
2. Second, always be prepared: before a problem arises, you need to examine in detail what could happen and what you might need. When you are in your car, for example, you must be aware that you could have a puncture and be prepared. In this case, you must be able to change the wheel and have the tools to handle this emergency. In other words, to go into space, you need a huge amount of knowledge.
3. Third, know how to manage the available resources effectively. For example, for every aspect of a mission, NASA holds meetings with as many as 100 people, all with the same competence and ability to come up with solutions, despite their different roles and grades.
4. Fourth, during an emergency, you must be ready to accept a greater risk. In the first shuttle mission, a solar panel brOKe, and an extra spacewalk was planned to repair it. In this case, for instance, NASA and the crew accepted a risk that was greater than planned but that would solve the problem; and indeed, it did. In some situations, then, you must consciously accept a greater risk to solve a problem, which is where the tough psychological training for space missions comes in.
5. Finally, use the team resources. Everyone must work effectively and efficiently to achieve the set goals.”

“As astronauts, we’re trained technically in everything. But the first time, we don’t know how we’ll react to the experience of living in an extreme environment such as under microgravity. When you arrive in space, you have to re-learn everything: how to eat, how to walk while floating, and how to go to the loo, as everything is completely different from what you’re used to on Earth. Indeed, you need a month, a month and half, to adapt to being an ‘extraterrestrial’.

The space agencies realise that they are sending the astronauts into a hostile environment. That’s why, first of all, they perform an extremely detailed analysis of the situations that might arise to assess the risks as accurately as possible. During the training, all aspects of a mission are studied, and the astronauts are trained to solve all the problems that they may be forced to encounter.”