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JSC Features

Managing Engineering with a safety mindset

April 18, 2017
Sometimes a different perspective can be illuminating.

Lauri Hansen, director of the Engineering Directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and her deputy, Kevin Window, are incorporating lessons learned and experience gained from their previous jobs in safety into their current positions. Hansen was the deputy director of JSC’s Safety and Mission Assurance (S&MA) Directorate from 2004 to 2006. Window formerly served as manager of the International Space Station Safety Office within the center’s International Space Station Program Office from September 2006 to January 2009.

Hansen says that her past experience helped her learn a lot about the unique products and perspectives that S&MA has to offer. She also learned how the Engineering and S&MA workforces could be better integrated. The two are sometimes seen as being duplicative and, indeed, there are some commonalities between them, such as a basic understanding of systems, but Hansen explained that the skills the two possess are complementary rather than redundant. The unique perspective S&MA has to offer is a very specific mindset that focuses on safety and mission assurance.

“I think a large part of the difference is a mindset,” Hansen said. “I mean, it’s a very specific mindset around safety and mission assurance, which is not to imply that Engineering isn’t worried about that—it is—but it’s a difference in focus between the two.”

As an example, she recalls a shuttle simulation after the loss of Columbia regarding the issue of repairing tile on the vehicle in orbit. The Engineering side of the house was concerned with matters such as what repairs could be done, how and with what certainty they could be done effectively and at what risk. The S&MA perspective stood back and looked at overall risks to the mission. 

“The S&MA perspective was a much more macro, risk-based discussion on the overall mission, while Engineering was discussing risks on specific implementation options,” Hansen said. “Both are valid and necessary viewpoints, but different perspectives.”

Window worked in avionics and software throughout most of his career, but had dealt with safety and quality assurance personnel. But as manager of safety for the space station, he gained a much deeper understanding of safety. He was then able to take that knowledge and experience into his future jobs.

The two agree that their past work in safety has changed their outlook.

“Working in S&MA certainly gave me a greater appreciation for the value of safety,” Hansen said. “You look at things like hazard reports and Safety Review Panels, and it’s always something that is known you have to do, but you understand more of the ins and outs of it and the value that you get out of it. That is probably the biggest thing—how they actually contribute to safety and human spaceflight.”

Window said that his experience gave him a better understanding of the “need for what the safety community brings to the table. And that helps us, I think, in our day-to-day jobs to make sure that our folks are understanding that as well, and making sure we have the right people doing the right jobs from an Engineering standpoint and from a safety standpoint.”

Hansen and Window recognize the value gained by working in S&MA or in a safety role once employees have gained a strong technical foundation in their own field.

“I like the model of people going through their career doing good in the other things—in Engineering, [the] program, whatever, to develop a strong technical foundation—with a desire to go to S&MA, because S&MA is so critical to what we do,” Window said. “The best of the best should be seeking the jobs in the S&MA community, because our job is to fly human spaceflight and make it safe for the people that we put onboard, and so these jobs are critical. I just think people should be knocking down the doors at S&MA to get in there, because it is such an important job.”

 
Bill Jeffs
NASA Johnson Space Center
 
Lauri Hansen, director of the Engineering Directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Image Credit: NASA
Lauri Hansen, director of the Engineering Directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Image Credit: NASA
Kevin Window, deputy director of the Engineering Directorate at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Image Credit: NASA
Kevin Window, deputy director of the Engineering Directorate at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Image Credit: NASA