GAO Wants FAA To Improve How It Investigates Space Launch Mishaps

GAO Wants FAA To Improve How It Investigates Space Launch Mishaps

The Government Accountability Office wants the FAA to improve how it investigates space launch mishaps, especially how it decides whether to do an investigation itself or allow the operator to do it. Historically operators are allowed to investigate their own mishaps under FAA supervision, but over the course of 50 mishaps since 2000, GAO found the FAA has not evaluated whether that’s an effective approach. GAO also champions creating a mechanism for sharing lessons learned among operators even though efforts in the past have not succeeded.

At the request of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, GAO looked at how the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation dealt with investigating the 50 commercial space launch “mishaps” from 2000 through mid-January 2023.

GAO attributed that figure to the FAA and said it represents 12 percent of the 433 launches during that time. Some of the mishaps were during launch while others were in-flight. The report does not identify them. It also notes that the FAA, DOD, NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) define mishaps differently and the Department of the Air Force has “undertaken a multiagency effort to coordinate” those definitions.

The GAO report says only that half of the 50 mishaps occurred in the past 3 years and none caused fatalities, serious injuries, or significant property damage to the public.

Both the FAA and the NTSB have authority to investigate commercial space launch mishaps and the FAA has been the lead in all except one. That was the 2014 death of co-pilot Michael Alsbury in the crash of a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo test flight. He was part of the crew, not a member of the public. NTSB led that investigation.

According to GAO, the FAA chooses whether to investigate a mishap itself or rely on the operator to do it under FAA supervision. To date, the FAA has always selected the latter because it doesn’t have the resources or expertise to do it in-house.

“FAA relies on the operator-led approach, agency officials told us, because, given highly specialized vehicle designs among companies, the agency does not have adequate resources for in-house investigations. For FAA to develop the capability to investigate mishaps in-house would be an immense undertaking that would mean investigations would take 10 to 20 times longer, officials told us. In addition, they said, operators know their vehicles best and, when trying to identify root cause of a failure, an intimate knowledge of vehicle design is necessary.” — GAO

GAO adds that since 2020, the FAA has cleared operators to return-to-flight before investigations are complete as long as safety-critical systems are not at fault and other factors are met in keeping with the FAA’s focus on public safety, not mission success.

GAO wants the FAA to evaluate whether its approach is effective. For example, the FAA has written procedures for mishap investigations, but no “specific criteria” for determining whether it or the operator should lead the investigation and so far has always chosen the latter. The FAA agreed “there is no particular reason for not having done a formal evaluation of the mishap investigation process.”

“Without a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of its operator led mishap investigation process, FAA cannot be assured that its safety oversight is best achieving agency objectives in an area of critical importance. Such an evaluation could include, among other things, assessing recent changes to the agency’s mishap process, including expedited return-to-flight and requirements to identify root cause; scope, conduct, and independence of operator-led mishap investigations; and integration of outside reviews into the investigation process.” — GAO

GAO also wants the FAA to try harder to come up with a mechanism for sharing lessons learned from the mishaps.  The FAA tried to create a voluntary system in 2010, but companies chose not to participate for a variety of reasons.

The FAA told GAO they are working with the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) to revisit those efforts.

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