From orbit to drill bit, NASA exes bring deep understanding of risk

The engineers and scientists who worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center built up a specialized tool kit for building and maintaining vehicles sophisticated enough to survive challenging outer space environments.

But the end of the shuttle era and resulting wind-down of some NASA programs led many of those specialists to jobs in the Houston-area energy industry.

And while exploring the depths of space and of the Earth’s geology are different, the space and oil businesses share a crucial need for identifying how projects can go awry – and how to plan against it.

“One of the things we always looked at on the space station was the range of possible outcomes if things went wrong – and whether that could kill you,” said Jim Reilly, a former astronaut who had a career in energy prior to flying on three space missions and who now does consulting work in the energy sector.

“It was a top-level threat we assessed, and then the next one was, could it kill the vehicle? Those were our critical two factors – if you had those – either one, then you had to build in triple redundancy.”

When the shuttle program ended with the last flight of Atlantis in 2011, thousands of workers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center hoped that their skills would transfer over to Houston’s booming energy business.

Reaching out

The search for oil and gas, especially in deep water, shares some of the complexities and hostile environs of outer space.

Tim Thornton, a former NASA employee and contractor who now works in safety assurance for FMC Technologies, said the deadly 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill exposed weaknesses in the energy industry’s approach to safety – and raised interest in learning NASA’s safety strategies from its former scientists, engineers and space travelers.

“The whole industry woke up and said, the methods we have used in the past – seat-of-the-pants engineering – haven’t worked too well,” Thornton said, explaining that the old safety philosophy focused on making equipment bigger and tougher to increase its effectiveness.

“What they realized is that the technology had changed such that there were some unknowns that they really hadn’t looked at.”

Thornton now is responsible for technical safety and reliability engineering – a function called technical assurance – at FMC, which manufactures and services oil field equipment.

“I saw it as an opportunity not only to help transform a company, but also to influence the industry,” Thornton said. “They were highly interested in the skills I had from the space program – this whole industry was missing a lot of things, and it was hard for them to develop it from within, so they said, ‘Let’s reach out to people who have these types of experiences, so they can help us change.’ ”

Thornton’s responsibilities include designing tests to determine how hardware might malfunction in the harsh environment of the deep seas.

“The deeper we get in the ocean, the more similar the environment becomes to space – the hazards are very present, and the unknowns are there,” Thornton said. “You want to have hardware that can perform without you going down there.”

Revising résumé

BP, which owned the well that blew out in the Gulf and triggered the deadly explosion and oil spill, has hired a number of ex-NASA employees and contractors for the company’s Safety and Operational Risk unit, said spokesman Brett Clanton.

NASA workers initially found it challenging to characterize their skills in a way that energy industry job recruiters would understand.

“What I discovered is that maybe I needed to go and change my résumé and develop what it was that I did,” Thornton said. “Nobody really understands mission control center, so unless you are going to go do the same thing in that industry, it is really difficult to market for a different industry.”

Cross-sector skills

Ten percent to 20 percent of workers who lost Houston-area aerospace jobs left Houston to stay in the business, but many of the rest looked to energy-related jobs.

The Aerospace Transition Center, established in 2010 to help space workers move to other industries, has helped the former rocket scientists and engineers craft the message of how their safety skills translate to the oil and gas world.

“My big break was a technical recruiter who had been in the Russian space program and who knew what all these people’s skills were,” said Christopher Stokely, who worked on safety systems for NASA and now is an applied physicist at Halliburton.

Stokely said that the Transition Center was key in establishing his initial contact with the oil field services company, where he now works on signal processing involving large data sets.

About 5,000 laid-off workers have used the Aerospace Transition Center since it opened in February 2010, said Veronica Reyes, a manager for the human resources firm Workforce Solutions, which runs the center.

Meanwhile, companies including GE are developing multiyear training programs to help ease the transition for the former aerospace workers.

“We are helping them understand the industry, so they can see how the product is manufactured, where it is going to be placed, and how employees who have been in the industry for years go about designing and putting these products together,” said Jeff Wooten, senior human resources manager for GE.

Valued work ethics

Former NASA workers have a special respect for following established safety protocols, a characteristic that is immensely valuable for the energy sector.

“You are not having to teach these people to follow procedures, which is difficult to do,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, a nonprofit organization that works to expand the aerospace presence in Houston. He said more than 2,500 former aerospace workers have moved to the area energy industry.

Some companies also appreciate the rigorous background checks NASA employers undergo.

“Most of us have security clearances,” Stokely said. “The criteria for having a clearance are high. For an employer, it is a big benefit, knowing that they have already been scrutinized and their lifestyles have been examined.”

But when it comes to saving lives and multibillion-dollar equipment, the former space workers’ best skill may be envisioning the worst case.

“They look at what may happen, instead of just producing the work, and that is something that other industries value,” Reyes said. “That kind of contingency planning and awareness is hard to teach, but it is ingrained at NASA.”