NASA Safety Center Director Harmony Myers discusses resources to help achieve technical excellence in safety and mission assurance.
The NASA Safety Center (NSC) supports the safety and mission assurance requirements of NASA’s portfolio of programs and projects. The NSC focuses on improving the development of personnel, processes and tools needed for the safe and successful achievement of NASA’s strategic goals. The NSC helps protect the safety of people, equipment and property, and works proactively to prevent mishaps.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- How the NSC influences NASA mission success
- The Safety and Mission Assurance Technical Excellence Program (STEP)
- Mishap prevention and investigation tools and resources
How to Participate in STEP Level 1 (NASA Only)
Harmony Myers is the director of the NASA Safety Center (NSC). Myers leads the agency’s support of Safety and Mission Assurance organizations at each of NASA’s field centers in the areas of technical excellence, knowledge management systems, audits and assessments, and mishap investigation. She previously held NSC positions as the director of the Technical Excellence Office and the System Safety Technical Discipline team lead. Myers began her career in 2000 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center with United Space Alliance as a systems engineer for the electrical system on space shuttle solid rocket boosters and transitioned to a reliability engineer in support of Return to Flight. She later served as executive director of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), advising the NASA administrator and senior management on ASAP issues. Myers earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Central Florida and a master’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Miami.
Harmony Myers: The Safety Center wants to help remind the community the importance of safety and really drive that passion.
I think it’s very important to share both ‘how I did it right’ and ‘how I did it wrong’ stories. Both experiences really provide valuable opportunities for learning.
Host: Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories that tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
June is National Safety Month. And while safety is top priority at NASA all year round, June is a special time designated by the National Safety Council to focus on saving lives and preventing injuries – from the workplace to any place.
Today on the podcast, we’re talking with the Director of the NASA Safety Center, Harmony Myers.
Harmony, thank you for joining us on the podcast.
Myers: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to talk to you today.
Host: What’s the NASA Safety Center vision?
Myers: So, the vision of the NASA Safety Center is to be NASA’s preeminent resource for safety and mission assurance, expertise, data and tool. My goal is really to enhance the NSC’s capabilities to increase our effectiveness as an agency resource that enables mission success. I feel like we can accomplish this by having more collaborations with the programs and projects throughout the agency.
Host: Especially for anyone who may not be familiar with the NSC, could you explain more about the Safety Center?
Myers: Absolutely. The NASA Safety Center was founded in 2006 after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident as a recommendation from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The NSC is an organization that falls under the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, but we’re physically located at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The NSC has about 35 civil servants and two support contracts consisting of around 45 people. Most of our staff is in Cleveland. However, we have remote employees in almost all the NASA centers.
So, the Safety Center has four main goals. The first is to enhance S&MA knowledge sharing across the agency. To do this we develop a variety of awareness campaign materials for the agency, including videos, articles, case studies, web content. And we also populate the content for the office of Safety and Mission Assurance website, which is sma.nasa.gov. We develop software applications such as the system that the agency uses to report close calls and mishaps, which is called the NASA Mishap Investigation System, or NMIS, and the SMA tool to input audit findings and corrective actions, which is the System for Tracking Audits/Assessments and Reviews, or STAR. And we’re really expanding our data analysis capability to look at the trends that we’re seeing across the mishap and audit findings. We’re hoping by being able to do this, we’ll be able to help influence more of the policy and share that information about crosscutting and systematic issues that the agency is experiencing.
Our second goal is to ensure effective and efficient reporting and investigation of mishaps. The agency mishap program executive resides at the NASA Safety Center and sets the policy and provides oversight for the NASA Mishap Investigation Program. So, our team assists with facilitating mishap investigation boards and provides technical writing for mishap reports.
Our third goal is to create a continuous learning environment for S&MA technical excellence. Our workforce development capabilities are aimed at supporting S&MA personnel from across the agency in disciplines of aviation safety, operational safety, system safety, reliability and maintainability, quality engineering and software assurance. And we’re expanding our content to include resources for the chief safety officers and the safety leadership.
Our fourth goal is to assure S&MA requirements compliance through verification. So, the NSC performs three agency audits. The Institutional Facility and Operational Safety Audit, or IFOSA, verifies that centers are in compliance with all the applicable facility and operational safety requirements. The Quality Audit Assessment and Review, or QAAR, verifies that the NASA centers, programs and projects are in compliance with SMA requirements, while the interim center assessments really serve as a health check of the centers in between those audits. The audits really provide the audit teams with an in-depth assessment to assure the safety and mission success throughout the agency.
Host: What do you recommend as a good starting point for NASA’s technical workforce to make use of NSC services and resources?
Myers: The NSC website is really the best place to access our products and services, which is nsc.nasa.gov. However, this link is only accessible internal to NASA. Some of the examples of the resources that we have on our website include recordings of all of our webinars, information about upcoming events. We publish S&MA-focused case studies with a highlight in a particular area of safety. So, some examples we’ve done are hardware qualification testing, fall protection and lithium ion batteries. We also develop a wide variety of multimedia content on different safety topics — materials that are really geared at aiming awareness on items as common as slips, trips and falls to less frequent, but highly dangerous issues. So, these products are really designed to help aid in mishap prevention, but unfortunately, sometimes mishaps occur. And when they do occur, we support the agency investigations and post status summaries and final reports on our website.
We have a repository of all the Mishap Warning Action Response, or MWARs, that investigators issue when their investigations uncover hazards that they want to share across the agency. As mentioned earlier, we also have developed and host the NASA Mishap Information System, which is the agencywide system for reporting all mishaps and close calls as well as a tool that employees can use to report hazards or safety events. Under the mishap policy there’s a requirement for centers, programs and projects to have a mishap preparedness and contingency plan. And we’ve developed a software tool that assists in creating those plans.
We also do best practices and data analysis that arise out of our audit program and host the audit agency calendar, which really serves as a tool for the centers to document when their planned audits are, so it can help our audit managers avoid conflicts.
So, the resources I’ve mentioned so far are internal to the workforce, but for those looking for publicly available content, we also publish system failure case studies. These case studies examine failures of complex systems within and outside of NASA.
Host: So, for people that are external to NASA, where can they go to get this information?
Myers: Sure. It’s nasa.gov/centers/hq/nsc.
Host: And we’ll include that link in this episode’s related resources. Harmony, what is the NSC doing in the area of workforce development?
Myers: So, the NASA Safety Center developed the Safety and Mission Assurance Technical Excellence Program, which is a mouthful, but we call it STEP. And this was introduced in 2009 and has evolved over the years. In fact, we just rolled out a new version of STEP this year, where we focus not only on the technical competencies, but also core competencies that focus on crosscutting skills across the SMA workforce, regardless of your discipline. So, this core training includes interpersonal, organizational and business fundamentals that really complement those technical skills. So, one of the biggest benefits about STEP is that almost all of our courses are available online for SATERN, which is NASA’s learning management system, and are available at no cost to the NASA workforce. So, this really provides flexibility and affordability to the employees and the organizations. STEP is a four-level program, which increases with complexity and commitment and covers eight disciplines.
So, STEP level one is the same for everyone, regardless of which discipline they are pursuing. It’s a good overview for engineering as well as SMA professionals. In addition to covering the SMA disciplines and agency processes, we have case studies and courses that people in programs and projects would really benefit from, including introduction to technical authority, risk leadership, and decision analysis. STEP level one was recognized by the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel as a great foundational resource to help foster a strong safety culture within the agency. So, we’re currently in the process of having a subset of those courses from level one to be required training for new civil servant hires. In addition, in conjunction with the Day of Remembrance, we’re going to annually require that civil servant workforce reflect on one of our lessons learned from our history. So, this year we did the Apollo 1 case study as a requirement. And the training really provided us an opportunity to pause and honor the legacy of those that we’ve lost in pursuit of exploration as well as remember the lessons learned that those losses taught us.
In levels two through four, the learner chooses which discipline they are going to focus on, and they can choose from aviation safety engineering, aviation safety officer, operational safety, quality engineering, reliability and maintainability, S&MA technical leadership, software assurance, or system safety. So, as I mentioned earlier, the curriculum really has a technical and core component that the learners take courses as well as obtain experiential learning for on-the-job training. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from our participants in the community, including people from outside of S&MA, such as engineering and program/project managers who took some of the training to really better understand how the SMA disciplines work and how we all fit together.
STEP was recently recognized as a Qualified Equivalent Program by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals. STEP participants who complete level three and four in operational safety are eligible to apply for the Transitional Safety Practitioner designation, which is a pathway to becoming a Certified Safety Professional. This designation waives the need for the learner to take the Associate Safety Professional exam before they have to sit for their CSP exam. So the CSP is accredited by ANSI and has a reputation of really being the gold star safety certification. And it’s just such an honor to have our program recognized by an outside certification body of this reputation.
So, the Safety Center also created a STEP level two cohort program, which is designed to progress the cohort through the level two training within 12 months. So, every year we have a cohort class of around 25 S&MA professionals from across the agency that participate in a structured plan for completing the requirements. And they are given dedicated time, as well as a technical mentor and guidance to really help them accelerate through our development program.
In addition to the formal training that we provide through the STEP program, we also conduct a few in-person training events. So, we develop and host the Executive Safety Leadership Program for members of our NASA Senior Exec Service. So this offers two days for the leadership to come together and really discuss safety and mission success. We also host a summit for the chief safety and mission assurance officers for them to share ideas and discuss concerns.
In addition to these formal training opportunities, we do webinars throughout the year on a variety of topics that are of interest to NASA and the S&MA community. From discipline-focused discussions to leadership topics to new policy launches with the technical fellows, we record them and they’re all available on our NSC website.
Host: Could you share specific examples of how the Safety Center has influenced NASA mission success?
Myers: Sure. Yeah. So, the NASA Safety Center is really driven to ensure mission success by ensuring there’s a competent S&MA workforce, providing technical expertise and really promoting that awareness and lessons learned across the agency. We provide expert root cause analysis support and ex-officio guidance for almost all of the type A, B and high-visibility NASA mishap and close call investigations. We help programs find the root cause of mishaps and enable lessons learned and corrective actions to be understood and acted upon and helps to impact the success of future missions.
So, one specific example that supported a program is when the Commercial Crew Program had S&MA deliverables that were coming from the contractors all at the same time for hazard analysis and reports. So, the Commercial Crew team were really set up to be a lean organization and they needed additional engineers trained to review those products. So, the NSC developed a two-day web-based training course to help familiarize the engineering teams with the hazard analyses methodology and help the teams assess the products and deliverables more effectively.
Our staff serve as subject matter experts in a variety of assessments led by the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, including technical expertise in the area of aviation safety, battery assessment, system safety and hazard analysis. And our chief engineer’s currently the safety representative on the Standard Review Board for the Gateway Program, which is the lunar component of Artemis. So, in this role he is really providing the technical expertise for the overall risk identification and mitigation approach across all elements of the Gateway Program.
Host: What drives your passion for the work you’re doing now?
Myers: I grew up on the Space Coast of Florida and NASA was in my backyard. I watched the space shuttle launches as I grew up, and it was just part of my childhood. So when I was in elementary school, there was a space shuttle launch where they were going to put a teacher in space and she was going to conduct lessons from there. There was a lot of excitement and publicity for this mission, and the entire school went outside to watch the launch. But even as a kid, I knew that the plume didn’t look right. It was different from the others that we had watched. And, so, after lunch our teacher told us that we had lost the Space Shuttle Challenger and all of its crew members. So, I watched as the community grieved and helped recover the pieces that washed ashore on the beaches. It was very sad, but eventually NASA launched again.
So fast forward to my first job out of college, and I was working on the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle Program when the Space Shuttle Columbia didn’t make it home. This was such an emotional experience losing the astronauts and grieving together as a workforce. But again, the NASA community dug in and figured out the problem and began launching again.
So that passion and dedication of the workforce is just remarkable to me. At the end of the shuttle program, the workforce made safely flying out the shuttle program a top priority, even in times of personal uncertainty. That enthusiasm, commitment and resilience of the workforce has been such a huge influence in driving my passion.
Another factor that really drives me is inspiring the next generation. I was first exposed to this when I was pursuing my engineering degree at the University of Central Florida. I joined an organization that has been instrumental in my life, which is the Society of Women Engineers. SWE is an advocate and a resource for women in engineering and technical fields and strives to inspire the next generation. So, as a college student is when I really first started to get involved in outreach activities to encourage girls to pursue engineering and technical fields. So since then, I’ve been giving back through various roles in SWE, serving as a mentor and advisor and active in outreach activities. I currently serve as a scholarship and awards judge, which allows me to give back to young women pursuing their passions.
Another organization that I’m involved in is First Robotics. And I have been serving as a judge and a referee for many years, and really seeing the passion around the high school students and building these robots has been truly inspiring.
So, after the Space Shuttle Program ended, I spent four years at NASA Headquarters as the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Executive Director. The ASAP is a Congressionally mandated advisory panel that was formed after the Apollo 1 fire and has been advising NASA on matters of safety ever since.
So, as the executive director, I served as the liaison between the panel and NASA. That role really afforded me the opportunity to hear directly from NASA’s top leadership — the status of programs, challenges, successes — and gave me an agency view and appreciation for the competing priorities, the depth and breadth of the workforce and areas where SMA can really help.
So, I joined the NASA Safety Center in 2015 as a system safety technical discipline team lead, and then became the director of technical excellence and now I’m serving as the director. I really feel like the NASA Safety Center ties together my passion for safety and mission assurance and mentoring, all in one job. It’s been very fulfilling to be able to provide the resources across the agency, not only to the S&MA community, but also benefit all of NASA programs and projects.
Host: You talked about the impact of growing up on the Space Coast and seeing the Challenger tragedy unfold. How much do you think the tragedies and mishaps of the past influence your day-to-day activities?
Myers: That’s a good question. So, I mean, I think it definitely influences my day-to-day as well as experiencing, I was in the NASA workforce when Columbia happened. So, I think coupled together, those experiences really impact my day-to-day activities as well as just trying to really encourage that knowledge sharing and stories back out to the community.
Host: How do you encourage others to develop a similar level of passion for the importance of safety and truly put a premium on promoting a safe workplace and preventing mishaps?
Myers: So, I’m going to start with a statistic. There’s about 62 percent of NASA’s civil servant workforce that was not with the agency when the Space Shuttle Columbia accident occurred in 2003. So that means over half our workforce may or may not really understand the emotional impacts of losing a mission depending on what their experience was prior to coming to NASA. So I really think that people are more influenced to put emphasis on safety or safe practices when they’ve had a past experience that has impacted them personally. So if they haven’t had that personal experience, we really look at it as our job to share that story so that they can experience it without having to go through the incident themselves. We also need to share our own stories.
So much of what is done in Safety and Mission Assurance is really learned from the people who have experience in the field. So just like we have to share the lessons learned from our mishaps, we have to share the things that work in order to help our developing workforce be successful. I think it’s very important to share both ‘how I did it right’ and ‘how I did it wrong’ stories. Both experiences really provide valuable opportunities for learning.
There’s also data that shows that the size of the S&MA workforce throughout the manned spaceflight programs, and it shows that after an incident that workforce increases for safety and then over time, it slowly decreases back down and then another incident occurs. So this cycle shows that maybe we’re forgetting the value of safety the community brings until another incident occurs. So really the Safety Center wants to help remind the community the importance of safety and really drive that passion. Sharing these lessons and learning from each other will keep us from repeating these same mistakes and trying to help ensure that our workforce is safer.
Host: Is the NASA workforce receptive to the messages you’re sharing?
Myers: So, I think that the workforce is definitely open to hearing these safety messages and value the lessons that we learned from the past. It’s really how they’re applying them to the programs and projects is where you would see the impact. And so, ideally, they’re taking these lessons learned and applying them to their programs.
Host: Many thanks to Harmony Myers for being our guest on the podcast. You’ll find her bio along with links to topics mentioned during our conversation as well as a show transcript on our website at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.
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As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.