NASA Safety Panel Reiterates Need for Constancy of Purpose, Attention to Human Spaceflight Systems

NASA Safety Panel Reiterates Need for Constancy of Purpose, Attention to Human Spaceflight Systems

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) issued its annual report today.  NASA is at a critical juncture in human space flight development, it says, repeating a warning from previous years that “constancy of purpose” at NASA is essential in order to avoid negative impacts on cost, schedule, performance, morale, process discipline, and safety.

At a time when the commercial crew program and NASA’s exploration systems development efforts are progressing towards their first flights, this is “a time when it is important to retain focus on program details; to maintain a sense of urgency while not giving in to schedule pressure; and to continue with program plans without neglecting, shortchanging or deleting planned content,” ASAP cautions.

Among the safety concerns that need special attention is threats from micrometeoroids and orbital debris (MMOD). The “United States government should seriously consider expanding its efforts to lead in developing international strategies to reduce debris generation and the hazards posed by existing debris.”

One area where ASAP raises special concerns about MMOD is for the commercial crew systems — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon (or Dragon2) and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner.  The report identifies MMOD damage while the spacecraft are docked with the International Space Station (ISS) and parachute deployment as the two primary risk drivers for both systems based on Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA).  ASAP commends NASA and the two companies for applying resources to resolve those issues and for using PRA “to effectively improve the risk posture.”  However, it also notes that the companies probably will not meet all the PRA requirements and “NASA will have to determine if the risk portrayed by the analysis, with its large uncertainties, is acceptable.”

For example, the companies are required to meet specific Loss of Crew (LOC) requirements and ASAP does not believe they will be able to do that.  “The Panel has been monitoring the providers’ progress in working toward the LOC requirements, and it appears that neither provider will achieve 1 in 500 for ascent/entry and will be challenged to meet the overall mission requirement of 1 in 200 (without operational mitigations).”  The requirement is 1 in 270 with operational mitigations.  ASAP concedes, however, those values in and of themselves should “not be viewed as an absolute measure of the actual risk of operations.”  Instead, ASAP stresses that the utility of the PRA tool is identifying major risk drivers.

Last year, ASAP expressed concern about SpaceX’s plan to place the crew aboard the Crew Dragon atop the Falcon 9 rocket before the rocket is fueled — called “load and go.”  This year it again urges NASA and SpaceX to fully assess all the hazards involved and weigh the risks against the benefits.

The report reveals that in February the ASAP made a recommendation to NASA that it require the commercial crew providers “to produce verifiable evidence of the practice of rigorous, disciplined, and sustained systems engineering and integration (SE&I) principles” to support NASA’s certification of their vehicles.  In today’s report, ASAP commends NASA for taking some action in that regard, but says it will keep the recommendation open until it sees evidence that the companies are internalizing “the value of highly disciplined processes and controls and engrain[ing] them into company culture.”

Patricia Sanders, ASAP’s chair since August 2016, is scheduled to be one of the witnesses at a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing next week on the commercial crew program.

NASA’s own Orion spacecraft will be launched by NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).  Under the current plan, there will be a 33-month gap between the first SLS/Orion flight, without a crew, and the second, which will carry a crew for the first time.  The delay is partially due to the need to make modifications to a Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) to accommodate a taller upper stage needed for the second mission.  ASAP worries that the gap could pose safety problems because of “the deterioration in both the number and skill of the ground workforce.”   It “strongly recommends” that NASA be provided with the necessary resources to build a second MLP to reduce the gap.

More broadly, ASAP commends NASA for taking seriously last year’s recommendation that it consider relaxing the schedule for Orion, SLS, and associated Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) to ensure schedule pressure does not erode testing content.  NASA announced in November that the first SLS launch will slip from November 2018 at least until December 2019, and probably June 2020.  ASAP sees that as a positive development and urges NASA to live up to its “stated intent that “We will not fly until we are ready.'”

The report covers many other issues.  The following table from the report summarizes what ASAP identifies as the 10 key topics and its assessment of them.

Excerpt from the 2017 annual report of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. p. 29.

ASAP was created by Congress in the NASA Authorization Act of 1968 (P.L. 90-67)  following the January 27, 1967 Apollo fire that killed Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch ground test of what was intended to be the first Apollo mission.  The 2005 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 109-155) codified additional responsibilities.  ASAP reports annually to Congress and the NASA Administrator.

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