SMA Leadership Profile: Clifton Arnold

SMA Leadership Profile: Clifton Arnold

5-minute read
Clifton Arnold

When asked about his new Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) role, Clifton Arnold joked that it came with many hats — in fact, more hats that he ever expected.

“The position expanded,” explained Arnold. “Pressure Systems included ground and flight pressure systems. With that, Lifting Devices was added, and then we included a special category called Propellants and Pressurants that deals with all propellants and inert gases.

As the Pressure Systems, Propellants and Pressurants, and Lifting Devices program executive, Arnold provides technical oversight and guidance for all of these discipline areas across the agency. It’s a broad spectrum, but Arnold is up for the challenge.

“What we do is hazardous in and of itself, but we do it the best in the world because we have a strong Safety Culture that not only resides in SMA, but also can be seen throughout the agency’s missions, programs and projects,” said Arnold. “We have a history of safe operations; it’s our pedigree and it is in our DNA. Space flight is an extremely dangerous business and though the safest thing is not to do anything, that’s not an option. We have to make it as safe as possible by having proper checks and balances to ensure safety.”

Though his title is new, his work in SMA goes back decades. Arnold began his career with the Department of Defense (DoD) 35 years ago, where he taught safety and Reliability in the deployment of airborne weapon systems. When he left the DoD, he came to Kennedy Space Center to serve as project engineer for Shuttle Ground Engineering and launch site support management for Shuttle and Expendable Launch Vehicle payload programs.

After working at Kennedy, Arnold accepted a position as the test and risk management lead within the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA) at Stennis Space Center and later served as acting manager. He then accepted a position in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Rocket Propulsion Test Program Office and was responsible for Rocket Propulsion Test strategic planning for chemical propulsion systems and components at Kennedy Space Center, Glenn Research Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Stennis Space Center, Wallops Flight Facility and White Sands Test Facility.

Communication: the Key to a Good Partnership

One major challenge on Arnold’s plate is addressing new modes of contracting lease agreements involving NASA’s tenants, contractors, customers and emerging industries utilizing agency equipment and facilities. NASA’s pressure systems and lifting devices are required by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards to have proper design, construction, maintenance and upkeep, and responsibility for any potential mishaps related to those pieces of equipment can fall on either the agency or lessee.

As the agency continues  to make multilevel lease agreements, loan equipment or facilities, or use facilities and equipment owned by others, Arnold said all parties need to better understand and communicate the responsibility and liability for ensuring those systems are maintained properly.

“It’s a complicated relationship because oversight is dependent upon the structure and type of lease agreement and also trust, but the biggest thing is the need for open communication,” said Arnold. “No matter who or what entity is there, we have to have open communication both ways. We have managers at each facility — Lifting Devices and Equipment managers, Pressure Systems managers, and Propellants and Pressurants managers — who directly interface with on-site companies and work through and with them on resolving these types of issues.”

Gearing Up for New Missions

Along with his many hats come many short and long-term goals in Arnold’s plan. His current goal is to ensure all Pressure Vessel Systems are ready to support mission requirements for the agency. Many of NASA’s pressure systems and lifting devices are critical in the build-up phase to launch, and Arnold wants to reduce any incidents or mishaps, bringing that number to zero. In the short-term, his philosophy is to look at risk-based management and prioritize the issues with the highest risk.

Many facilities are more than a half-century old. NASA has some obsolete equipment that it is retrofitting, and it is difficult to operate and maintain those legacy systems. Many of the manufacturers that once developed components for equipment parts or software are no longer in business.

“It’s a big challenge to keep these facilities in a state where they are able to support missions due to age,” said Arnold.

Plans for the Future

One of the biggest risks Arnold works with is layered pressure vessels because their construction being multi-wrapped cylindrical vessels with spherical heads. Inspecting and examining the inner layers and welds of that particular construction is a challenge. Arnold is working on multiple Risk Mitigation Projects (RMP) within OSMA and the Mission Support Directorate/Office of Strategic Infrastructure.

“We’ve gotten to a point where we’ve made great strides in Probabilistic Risk Assessment modeling and we can transition from risk mitigation to implementation,” said Arnold. “It’s very exciting times where we are actually able to understand risks with these vessels and can measure where critical flaws are.”

Many of the proprietary designs and construction pre-date OSHA regulations and/or American Society of Mechanical Engineers code. Potential safety, schedule and cost risk exist to the agency with a significant replacement of the current $1.2 billion dollar inventory.  Through certain techniques developed in the RMP, Arnold believes NASA can significantly reduce the number of vessels it will need to replace, as the Return on Investment for the replacement of an entire fleet would be less than 10%.

“I’m really excited and positive that we’ve done a proper investigation into this, and it’s going to really improve our safety posture for continued use of these non-code vessels,” said Arnold.

He and his group plan to begin baselining and mapping agency vessels in 2021 and start selective replacement efforts in 2022.

Arnold is also looking at Voluntary Consensus Standards (VCS) in technical areas to see which ones will best fit certain operations.

“When we need to evaluate a pressure system or lifting devices design, construction, and operation and maintenance, we can adopt these standards instead of creating NASA unique processes and procedures,” said Arnold. “I’m looking forward to investigate if the use of more VCSs will allow us to operate more efficiently as an agency.”

Changing the Culture

Over time, Arnold intends to change the culture of the agency from lagging performance to leading performance indicators. Incorporating more leading performance indicators allows the agency to measure, manage and drive behavior in a certain direction as well as increase awareness.

“Change is difficult for some people, but I think if you’re able to communicate the benefits of change then everyone can get behind that change,” said Arnold. “We should focus on communicating and explaining the benefit of change. The worst thing we can do is to change ‘just because.’ There has to be a tangible outcome that is the basis of change. Once you show benefit it’s easier for others to get on board.”

Most of all, Arnold believes it’s very important to be surrounded by a team of people with varying backgrounds and experiences.

“I think having a diverse team with differing technical skills, philosophies and beliefs, and making sure everyone feels comfortable with sharing ideas, is the major goal of every program,” said Arnold. “We are truly a gifted and talented workforce.”