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Tommaso Sgobba

Tommaso Sgobba stands at the forefront of space safety leadership as the President and cofounder of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS), a global organization uniting premier space safety experts.
Here just a preview of the first question... join the club to read the full interview!

Tommaso Sgobba stands at the forefront of space safety leadership as the President and cofounder of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS), a global organization uniting premier space safety experts.

With a wealth of experience, Tommaso held a pivotal role in ensuring flight safety at the European Space Agency (ESA), and NASA. Having commenced his career in the aeronautical industry, mr Sgobba joined ESA in 1989. Over the years, he transitioned into roles of increasing responsibility, eventually becoming the product assurance and safety manager for European manned missions on the Shuttle, MIR station, and the European facilities for the International Space Station.

He has significantly contributed to the field through numerous publications, including coediting the groundbreaking textbook "Safety Design for Space Systems" and the book "The Need for an Integrated Regulatory Regime for Aviation and Space." Tommaso's dedication has not only shaped ESA's safety protocols but has also left an indelible mark on the global landscape of space safety.

The SpaceInfo Club had the pleasure to ask him some questions and some insight throught his career and the result is amazing!

Here just a preview of the first question... join the club to read the full interview!

As the Executive Director of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS), could you provide an overview of the organization's mission and its role in promoting space safety?

It all started in April 2004, after there was the accident of Space Shuttle Columbia (occurred on February 1st 2003). Mr Sgobba was personally involved in the accident since ESA had most of the payload on that mission. His office and himself was in charge of the safety of the payload, thus when the tragedy occurred they started by gathering the office and putting together the documentation to start the investigation. 

As a matter of fact, he had a delegation to certify the European payload onboard the Space Shuttle as well as on the International Space Station. One of the reactions of NASA was to suspend the delegation until the investigation was terminated. This was a direct consequence of the accident on the short term. In the following months the investigation showed that the payload had no responsibility in the accident.

At higher level, the problem was the non existing role of the Safety Office at NASA at the time: no direct involvement was envisaged into the safety design. To make this clearer, this means that an organization of such dimension and importance was not really involved into safety. Secondly, NASA seemed to underestimate the consequence of a falling debris from the vehicle. We don’t mean the protective shied detaching from the Shuttle when lifting off; we mean the debris of the whole vehicle falling from the higher layers of the atmosphere (troposphere and stratosphere) when the accident occurred during re-entry. High risk for aviation was real! On that day, debris fell very close to Dallas Airport and one airplane crossed them very closely two times!

At the end of investigation,  when the safety report was published, at ESA there was a small internal panel to review the results and implement recommendations for the Agency. Lessons learned and impacts were picked up by engineers, by the director of human space flight and program managers. In particular, the latest took control of the meeting and steered the conclusion to say that no action was to be done: they were already doing everything fine... 

However this was the time he realized that something had to be done.

In those years Mr Sgobba was the representative of the Multilateral Mission Assurance Board, a very important one: they gathered among different agencies like NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, and Canadian Space Agency. He directly asked the Agencies to establish a forum to grant safety from then on. This is how the Association (IAASS) was established with the purpose of reducing the percentage of accidents. 

IMPORTANT: Space Safety has to be considered as a discipline and it was already existing at the time! Indeed, it was established when the ballistic launches begun and were developed, thus decades before (see our articles and video about the history of Spaceflight!). These missiles were ballistic and intercontinental; they were placed into silos which were hidden deep into the ground. Already in those times there were some important accidents: once a rocket failed and the nuclear warhead was launched towards the gate of the pad… a lot of people died.

Another time an operator dropped a tool into a pressure stabilized structure of a rocket, with a consequent explosion of the whole rocket following a structural collapse.

It is this way that people identified the need of safety, not only while launching huge rocket into orbit, but for each phase, from construction to operation.

In those days people realized that safety analysis, a pillar of the whole safety discipline, was necessary!

But how is this discipline practiced in everyday operations? Space is a very innovative field, so safety analysis applies also in a predictive way, because of the innovative nature of space environment. Space Shuttle and ISS followed these pillars of safety.

For the predictive approach to be effective, you need to deeply understand the technology and how it works.

Aviation was established with attention to safety, but with no available tools for safety analysis...  

It was quite common to actuate the following approach: fly, accident, learn, and fly again. 

There is a quote from professor Gabrielli ‘Every airplane is soaked in blood, and the more it is soaked the better it’s been developed. This is not the way Space works. 

Prescriptive requirements, how the planes were built and no safety orientation were some of the most common problems with safety. Think about this. ‘The parking brake has to stop the plane onto some inclined surface’ - end of the requirement. So if your are testing this, it happens that you follow the procedure ‘blindly’, covering those prescriptive requirements; but a lot of corner cases are neglected. The Space approach is different: a goal is set and then the way to get to the goal is found. This approach was true and fully applicable until the 1980s, when computers started to come in: the command chain for a conventional vehicle is: 

  1. human (procedures, etc...) 

  2. software (no matter what you do, it can still fail…)

  3. hardware.

Due to this new actor in the play, Safety became a RELIABILITY problem, something also subjected  to analysis: occurrences and data.

Think about a problem of this approach: Boeing 737-Max. Separating these three factors is no good (HW, SW, Human). For this reason there is a transition happening now from rule/requirement based design to performance based designs.


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