NASA Safety Panel Chair Worries "the Cart is Before the Horse" on Commercial Crew Acquisition

NASA Safety Panel Chair Worries "the Cart is Before the Horse" on Commercial Crew Acquisition

Vice Adm. Joe Dyer (Ret.), chair of the NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), told a House committee on Friday that he worries NASA has put “the cart before the horse” in its commercial crew acquisition strategy.  Meanwhile, NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier acknowledged that 80-90 percent of the funding for “commercial” crew is from the government, not the companies.

Dyer and members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee continued to hammer home concerns that the method by which NASA is working with private sector companies in developing commercial systems to take people to and from the International Space Station (ISS) may not keep safety as a paramount criterion.

ASAP was created by law following the 1967 Apollo 204 fire that killed the first Apollo crew — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.  For the past 45 years, its primary focus has been safety at NASA.  Stressing that ASAP is not trying to say “how safe is safe enough,” Dyer explained that his panel instead is focused on pointing out “where we believe the stated requirement may not produce the requisite safety.”  At the beginning of the space shuttle program, he said, NASA thought the risk of losing a crew was one in a thousand;  “Retrospectively, we now think that it is one in 12.”   With that in mind, Dyer asked, is NASA setting the bar high enough with a design goal of one in 270 for a specific commercial crew mission?

NASA’s decision to use Space Act Agreements (SAAs) instead of traditional contracts governed by Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) is the source of safety concerns by both ASAP and House committee members.   In his written statement, Dyer said that using SAAs has brought the agency to a point where “designs … are maturing before requirements, and where government and industry have not yet agreed on how winning designs will be accepted and certified.  We worry that the cart is before the horse.”

A key point he stressed was the difficulties in how NASA and the companies communicate with each other under SAAs versus FAR-based contracts.   The companies “pose specific questions about what NASA will eventually require … but NASA interprets [SAAs] that they cannot provide the answers … under the SAA construct.”  When ASAP asked the companies what they do in that case, Dyer told the committee, they responded that they “look for nonverbal communications … winks and nods.”   As a congressionally chartered panel that oversees safety at NASA, Dyer said, ASAP finds that is “not a comfortable communications approach,” calling it one of the “downsides” of SAAs that FAR-based contracts could resolve.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, who is in charge of the commercial crew program, assured the committee that NASA will take the views of outside advisors into consideration adding that NASA had just issued a white paper describing how the agency will certify the commercial crew designs and “ensure the safety of the requirements that are in place.”  HIs testimony, however, focused on the need to get a crew transportation system built as a backup to Russia’s Soyuz system.  

With the termination of the space shuttle program last year, Soyuz is the only way to take crews to and from the ISS.  Soyuz also serves as the only “lifeboat” for the ISS crews to return them to Earth in an emergency.  “We need redundant crew transportation and rescue capability as soon as possible,” Gerstenmaier said.   NASA will be dependent on Soyuz for some years to come, however, and will need another waiver from the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) to buy crew transportation and lifeboat services from Russia after mid-2016. Gerstenmaier said at a hearing a year ago that NASA would need another INKSNA waiver in late 2012 or early 2013, but the Obama Administration has not yet sent a request to Congress for that waiver.   At this hearing, he said again that “we need it in the spring of next year” and NASA is working internally within the administration on the request.

A system to take crews beyond low Earth orbit — the Space Launch System (SLS)/Orion combination — also is needed, Gerstenmaier said.  He stressed that commercial crew and SLS/Orion are connected to each other, even though the committee held a separate hearing on SLS/Orion earlier in the week.   Developing both simultaneously is a “challenge” in the current budgetary environment and we “need to look at these programs supporting each other and, ultimately, the human spaceflight for the nation.” 

Regarding the extent to which “commercial” crew means that the companies are investing their own monies instead of the government footing the bill, Gerstenmaier agreed witih Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) that the government is paying the largest share.  Smith asked if his understanding was correct that 80-90 percent of the funds were from the government.  Gerstenmaier replied “I would say the — yes, it’s — the majority of the funding is coming from NASA for this activity.”  He said there could be a long discussion about what the term “commercial” means in this context, but “the way I look at it is, I would not use that term specifically.  But what we’re doing is, we’re getting a contribution from the contractors to help in this activity because they believe there’s another market out there.  If you want to pin the term ‘commercial’ on that, you can pin the term.  But the facts are what I described.”

Committee members seemed generally unpersuaded that the SAA approach would be successful in producing a cost effective system that would be as safe as a system procured under traditional FAR-based contracts.   Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) said she was “puzzled, and a little bit frustrated, that NASA appears to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge the warning signs that this major program is not on a firm path to success at present.”

A webcast of the hearing is available on the committee’s website along with the prepared statements of the witnesses.


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