Policy disputes, uncertainties pose safety risks for NASA

NASA panel warns of a bumpy future for NASA’s safety record

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Perhaps for a moment - in those fleeting seconds after President Obama signed the space agency's 2011 budget -- NASA's immediate future seemed set. But things just aren't that rosy, especially when it comes to the impact of political policy disputes, commercial space travel implications and International Space Station challenges on NASA's future safety performance.

That was at least in part some of the conclusions included in NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) recent report to the NASA Administrator on safety matters of the future.

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"The panel's first and foremost concern is the lack of clarity and constancy of purpose among NASA, Congress, and the administration," panel Chairman Joseph W. Dyer said in a statement. "We believe this increases the likelihood that essential knowledge and competencies in the contractor or government workforce, such as those involving safety considerations, lessons learned, and past experience will not be present to effectively reduce risk in the future."

From its report, a few of the ASAP panel's chief concerns included:

Where is NASA going?:  "While we are seeing the end of the Space Shuttle Program and the proposed termination of the Constellation Program and its budget authorization, we have yet to see any clear articulation or funding for a new plan. In this discussion, the ASAP makes a basic assumption that the United States desires to retain a human spaceflight and exploration program, although the precise form and extent have yet to be defined. What is NASA's exploration mission? The debate's concentration on the ability of commercial providers to offer transportation to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has overshadowed the much larger debate about exploration beyond LEO. What should our next destination goal be? An asteroid? The Moon? Mars? The decision affects the necessary technology programs needed to prepare for such a mission. More importantly, from the aspect of safety, the lack of a defined mission can negatively affect workforce morale and the ability to attract and maintain the necessary skill sets needed for this high-technology venture."

Spaceflight Acquisition Strategy and Safety:  "Acquisition strategy is profoundly linked to safety. The principles of design and system robustness, as well as the delicate trades among cost, schedule, performance, and safety, are communicated to the supplier via the request for proposal that is derived from the acquisition strategy. Acquisition strategy articulates the design goals and optimizes placement on a continuum between "cheapest achievable" and "best possible." Additionally, the strategy lays out the success criteria and reward structure. The safety linkage is intimate and inseparable. The ASAP is not yet comfortable with the harmony between technical readiness and the anticipated fixed-price contracting approach for NASA's Commercial Space Transportation Program. A lack of compatibility between these elements can often increase risk as funding runs short and time runs out. Somewhere between "hands-off" and "overbearing Government involvement" in commercial enterprise that drives up overhead and other costs, there is an optimal balance point. NASA is making progress at figuring out where that is, but it is an impressive challenge and one that will continue and requires further development.

It's what you know: "Although the fiscal year (FY) 2011 President's Budget Request effectively cancels the Constellation Program, there is a wealth of knowledge and lessons learned during the program's design, development, and test activities. At some point in the future, this knowledge may become essential and, at a minimum, could well serve the next generation of rocket designers. Much of Constellation's knowledge and lessons learned can be applied to future spaceflight vehicle and rocket developments, whether they are commercial or not. There is excellent work being done across the spectrum of the Shuttle, the ISS, and Constellation. It will be a great loss to the Nation and to humankind if this knowledge is not captured, managed, and effectively utilized."

Getting along: "It will be very important for NASA and the FAA to work together closely to provide Government oversight for commercial crew operations. A strong interagency partnership will provide benefits-NASA has almost 50 years' experience launching humans into space, and the FAA has more than 25 years' experience in regulating commercial space launches. The ASAP encourages NASA and the FAA to "practice" their new relationship during the commercial cargo-delivery and vehicle-development missions over the next several years."

International Space Station:  "Logistics support-April 2011 will be the last planned Shuttle mission to the ISS, although the Agency is requesting approval and funding for an additional logistics mission utilizing the launch-on-need.  This will be the last U.S. logistics mission until commercial cargo services are available.  As a result, NASA must rely upon a combination of ISS visiting vehicles from the International Partners-Russia, the European Space Agency (ESA), and Japan. "  There are a number of other issues involved with the ISS including the threat from what the panel called "MicroMeteoroid and Orbital Debris," which it noted was getting worse every year.  "NASA needs to continue to closely watch this situation over the remaining ISS life."

Russian space bus:  "The US and all other ISS participants will also be solely dependent on Russian Soyuz vehicles for crew transport to and from the ISS until commercial space transportation services provider becomes operational. While this does not immediately translate into a safety issue, anytime one depends on a single-source solution, one runs the added risk of interruption in service due to some unforeseen contingency affecting that source. We have no evidence that Progress and Soyuz will be anything but as reliable as they have been; however risk rises as the simple offshoot of dependence on a single-source provider. Another potential utilization of the Russian capability could arise if it were required to perform an emergency evacuation or deorbit of the ISS."

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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