NASA Advisory Committees Hopeful, Cautious About Commercial Resupply Services

NASA Advisory Committees Hopeful, Cautious About Commercial Resupply Services

Two NASA advisory committees that spent one day reviewing progress on the development of Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) for the International Space Station (ISS) expressed some reservations, but generally appeared cautiously optimistic about the effort.

Joe Dyer and Tom Stafford, chairs of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel and the ISS Advisory Committee, respectively, testified to a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee last week on a related topic. Stafford told the subcommittee that the report of their joint one-day review was attached to his testimony as an appendix. The appendix is not yet posted on the committee’s website, but has obtained a copy.

The report summarizes a joint public meeting of the two advisory committees held on September 9, 2011 in which committee members commented on what they learned at an August 9 “fact finding” meeting that was not open to the public. At the August meeting, the two committees were briefed by SpaceX and Orbital about the status of their CRS systems. Stafford and Dyer emphasized at the September meeting that they had only one day to review the companies’ plans and progress, so the review was not comprehensive, and they were calling themselves a “Review Team” for this exercise.

NASA anticipates that both companies will begin offering cargo services to the ISS next year.

The Review Team expressed concern that the schedules are success oriented, with SpaceX anticipating the next launch of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft in November, and Orbital planning the first flight of its Taurus II rocket and Cygnus spacecraft in February 2012. (The launch date for Falcon/Dragon is expected to slip because of changes to the crew rotation schedule for the ISS necessitated by a Russian launch failure in August.) They commented that SpaceX’s plan to combine their second and third test flights and include two Orbcomm satellites “appears to be very aggressive mission planning.”

Regarding safety, the Review Team said it could not “unequivocally endorse” the companies’ safety efforts because it did not have time for a thorough review, but from what the members did learn, there were no “indications of significant systemic failings of … safety efforts.” However, they were concerned about “the perceived responsibility in the event of a catastrophic failure.” Discussions with the ISS Program Office about who is responsible for safety and mission assurance “seemed somewhat casual,” the report says, concluding that “Written ground-rules and assumptions need to be well documented.” Similarly, it said that formal rules need to be written about who has go-no go authority for each phase of flight.

SpaceX and Orbital are using very different approaches to design and verification, the Review Team noted, and both “can be made to work with a performance-based contract.”

The Review Team expressed concern about SpaceX’s software presentation, calling it “unsettling” because the company’s “software chief said he didn’t worry about errors because ‘there were no mistakes in the software.’ In the Review Team’s experience, this is unlikely.” Later, the Review Team commented that while Orbital “generates the confidence of a company that has ‘been there, done that,'” SpaceX is “entrepreneurial; their thinking is a fresh approach … [with] the potential to deliver at lower cost with innovations.” However, they cautioned that SpaceX’s software comments were “very disturbing and presented a lack of insight and sophistication on what can go wrong in this business.”

The report also stressed that attention is needed to cultural differences between the companies and NASA. It commented that the two companies “could pay more attention …. in a more formal manner” to cultural differences, and NASA personnel “have an excellent opportunity to be alert to cultural issues … and it is not clear that they are effectively trained to recognize their role and execute against it.” All three organizations need to establish a “good ‘tone at the top,'” the Review Team noted.

Transparency within NASA and between NASA and the companies regarding issues and challenges was strongly encouraged by the Review Team.

Stafford said at the September meeting that a transcript would be made available, but one is not yet posted on the websites of either advisory committee. One comment made by Dyer at the end of the September meeting, but not reflected in the report, is that “if we could put these two companies in a blender, we’d have it just right.” Absent that, “transparency will help get us to the right place,” he said.

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