ASAP Minces No Words on "Accretion of Risk" in NASA Programs

ASAP Minces No Words on "Accretion of Risk" in NASA Programs

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) issued its annual report today.  While complimenting NASA in some areas, its key message is cautioning about what it perceives as an “accretion of risk” in NASA’s space flight programs that it fears could impact safety.

ASAP was created by Congress following the 1967 Apollo 204 fire that took the lives of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.  It is a NASA advisory panel, but because of its origins, reports both to the NASA Administrator and Congress.  It advises NASA on anything affecting safety at the agency.  Vice Admiral (Ret.) Joseph Dyer has chaired ASAP since November 2003 when it was reconstituted and its charter revised after crriticism that it was ineffective in identifying the problems that led to the space shuttle Columbia tragedy.

Last year’s ASAP report focused on its concerns that NASA was not providing sufficient information about the commercial crew program to allow ASAP to make an informed judgment about whether safety issues are being addressed.  NASA explained that the problem was the commercial nature of the program and what information from the companies is proprietary and what can be shared with ASAP.   This year, Dyer says the situation has improved significantly.

As it has in the past, ASAP stressed the need for NASA to receive adequate funding to implement the programs it is assigned to do or safety could be affected.  This report was completed before NASA received its final FY2016 budget and ASAP warned that Congress needed to provide CCP with all of the requested funding.  It also said again that competition must be maintained to ensure the “best and safest design.”  Ultimately Congress approved the full $1.244 billion requested by NASA for FY2016.  This is first year full funding was appropriated.

ASAP’s primary concern in this report is “a continuing and unacknowledged accretion of risk in space flight programs that we  believe has the potential to significantly impact crew safety and the safe execution of human space missions.”

The panel lists seven examples of “situations that have led to our disquiet”: erosion of the test program for components of the Exploration Systems Development  program; late changes to the Orion heat shield with only one opportunity (Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1) to test it; the first flight of the Orion environmental control and life support system on  EM-2, a mission that will send a crew on a cislunar mission that could take up to 11 days; the infrequent flight rate of the Space Launch System (SLS); growth in the maximum acceptable Loss of Crew probability; the lack of design maturity at Critical Design Review for the CCP systems coupled with lagging hazard reporting; and the lack of formality in design decisions and changes in the CCP.

The report notes that ASAP has a long standing recommendation on
“Process for Managing Risk with Clear Accountability” that “remains open
and has not been adequately addressed.  We observe continued
manifestations of risk accretion with little detectable movement in
resolving our concern….”

NASA’s Journey to Mars human space flight program also comes in for criticism.  After complimenting NASA for responding to concerns raised last year that the agency must “unambiguously articulate” what it intends to do, the report goes on to reproach the agency for not putting forward at least a preliminary reference mission and schedule, rather than the vague outline contained in the agency’s recent “Pioneering the Next Steps in Space Exploration” report.   Members of the NASA Advisory Council similarly have taken issue with NASA on the lack of a defined path forward, but NASA officials insist that it is too early to make such decisions and flexibility is needed as the political and technological climates evolve.   NASA calls its current effort the Evolvable Mars Campaign.

ASAP left no doubt that it views a more defined plan as imperative.  Saying that a well-designed mission with rewards that outweigh the risks would help sell the program to Congress and the public, but ‘[i]f not, then perhaps NASA should be working on a different mission, or at least using a different approach for the current mission.”

SLS is a critical component of the Journey to Mars, and ASAP also made clear that it is not convinced it will meet NASA’s goal of a first launch with a crew in 2021 — the EM-2 flight.  That was the original date NASA announced, but last year, when it was required to set a date to which the agency would be held accountable, it said 2023 instead, adding that it retains an internal goal of launching in 2021 nonetheless.  ASAP chided NASA for that stance.  Externally committing to 2023 while internally making decisions based on 2021 “is a risky situation, because safety could be unnecessarily compromised unless guiding safety principles are established and maintained.”  The panel said its future reviews of the program will revolve around questions such as why is it important to fly a crew on the second launch of SLS when the schedule thereafter remains undefined: “What is the compelling reason to adopt these measures to maintain a 2021 schedule that appears to be unrealistic by NASA’s own analysis?”


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