NASA Safety Panel Lays Out Concerns About Human Spaceflight Program

NASA Safety Panel Lays Out Concerns About Human Spaceflight Program

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released its 2009 annual report on Friday. From a safety perspective, the panel opposes any “significant” extension of space shuttle flights, worries that commercial providers of crew launch services do not yet meet NASA’s Human Rating Requirements, supports the existing Constellation program, and urges NASA to be open-minded about increasing its use of robots instead of or to support astronauts.

Many of its findings and recommendations parallel those in its 2008 report or were expressed by ASAP chair Vice Admiral Joe Dyer (Ret.) in testimony to the House Science and Technology Committee in September (read a summary of the hearing).

As required by the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, the report was submitted not only to NASA Administrator Bolden, but to the President of the Senate (who is also the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden) and the Speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi). ASAP was originally created in the 1968 NASA Authorization Act in the wake of the 1967 Apollo 204 fire that killed three astronauts. The 2005 law added other responsibilities and the requirement that ASAP reports be submitted to Congress as well as the NASA Administrator.

The dual reporting requirement could be especially important this year since the debate over the future of the human spaceflight program is shaping up to be the central issue in NASA’s FY2011 budget debate. Some of NASA’s most vocal overseers in Congress and the White House may not see eye-to-eye on that topic. The timing of the ASAP report’s release is noteworthy. It is the earliest in the year that an ASAP report has been published in recent memory and could be timed to ensure that ASAP’s concerns are fully in the public eye – including Congress’ – as the course of U.S. human spaceflight is set.

  • ASAP opposes extending space shuttle flights “significantly” beyond those currently planned unless the shuttle undergoes the recertification called for by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) that found the causes of the 2003 Columbia tragedy in which seven astronauts perished. The panel said that the time to make a decision to extend the shuttle beyond 2010 was several years ago when such a recertification could have been initiated. ASAP said it was particularly concerned about discussions of a “serial extension” of a few flights at a time. The report comments that –

    “The Shuttle is a 1970s design system that has operated post-Columbia with an enviable record of both safety and performance, but the Panel believes that its probable decline is upon us. Extension significantly beyond what is planned through the current manifest would be unwise.”

    Rumors are that the Obama Administration similarly does not want any additional shuttle flights with perhaps the exception of the “launch on need” STS-135 mission. However, some Senate Republicans may make a push to keep flying the space shuttle until a U.S. replacement is available, which would be another five to seven years.

  • ASAP is cautious about relying on the commercial sector to provide crew transportation services to the International Space Station – called “commercial crew.” It notes that the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) manufacturers do not meet NASA’s Human Rating Requirements (HRRs) “despite some claims and beliefs to the contrary.” International systems “that would extend beyond that currently in use (Russia) should be evaluated against the same performance standard as COTS,” the panel added.

    The Obama Administration is rumored to be strongly supportive of commercial crew. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the top Republican on the Senate subcommittee that funds NASA, however, is sharply critical of the idea, at least for the near-to-mid term future.

  • From a safety standpoint, ASAP supports the existing “Program of Record” — Project Constellation, including its Ares I launch vehicle. The panel lauds the Ares I architecture that “has been designed from the beginning with a clear emphasis on safety” and warns against abandoning it for “an alternative without demonstrated capability nor proven superiority (or even equivalence),” calling that “unwise and probably not cost effective. Adm. Dyer warns in his letter introducing the report that the options to the Program of Record identified by the Augustine committee have not been evaluated for safety:

    “The Panel has not yet had the opportunity to evaluate any of these concepts with regard to inherent safety issues, but cautions against abandoning the baseline vehicle for an unproven alternative without demonstrated capability. The inherent safety of any and all approaches must be fully assessed to ensure that a level of safety necessary to support human transport is offered. Additionally, there must be a balance and harmony between the size and scope of the undertaking and the budget provided to design, develop and execute it.”

    Rumors are that the President’s budget request will terminate Ares I and support commercial crew instead, and reorient the human spaceflight program to focus on sending astronauts to interplanetary destinations rather than landing on the Moon or Mars in the immediate future. Democratic and Republican Members of the House Science and Technology Committee, who authorize NASA activities, in particular have been strongly supportive of Constellation, including Ares I. As noted, Senator Shelby also is an avid supporter of Ares I.

House and Senate appropriators made clear in the FY2010 bill that funded NASA (the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act) that they expect to be closely involved in decisions about the future human spaceflight program. They prohibited NASA from spending money to terminate any aspect of Project Constellation or begin an alternative program. ASAP stressed that “NASA must be fully candid with the public and Congress, and those audiences must fully understand what risks are involved.”

ASAP also commented on several other issues. For example, it argued for NASA to “take a more open-minded and aggressive view” towards using robots to “replace humans on some missions and to support astronauts on others.” The panel had raised this issue in its 2008 report and complimented NASA on how it responded to that finding, but added that “we still find a wide discrepancy between how the Agency views robots” compared with the commercial and military sectors.

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