NASA Safety Panel Worries About Commercial Crew Planning-Funding Disconnect

NASA Safety Panel Worries About Commercial Crew Planning-Funding Disconnect

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) issued its annual report yesterday.   NASA’s commercial crew program received considerable attention again this year, especially the “disconnect” between how much funding NASA requests for the program versus what Congress approves.  ASAP worries that a continued disconnect will “again drive a change to acquisition strategy, schedule, and/or safety risk.”

ASAP has previously expressed concern about NASA’s continued use of Space Act Agreements (SAAs) instead of traditional Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based contracts as its acquisition approach for commercial crew.  NASA’s ability to set requirements and have insight or oversight of a company’s activities is much more limited under SAAs.  NASA planned to transition to FAR-based contracts last year, but changed course when it concluded that funding uncertainties meant fixed price FAR-based contracts would not work.

In this year’s report, ASAP is worried generally about a continued gap between NASA’s planned funding and what it actually gets from Congress and insists that the two must reach consensus “to resolve this conundrum.”  In particular, however, ASAP is concerned that funding challenges will lead NASA to choose an option where the companies would fly orbital test flights with non-NASA crews that “could yield two standards of safety — one reflecting NASA requirements, and one with a higher risk set of commercial requirements.”  If NASA exercised the option, which is included in the current Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) awards, ASAP says it could prematurely signal “tacit acceptance of this commercial requirements approach absent serious consideration by all the stakeholders on whether this higher level of risk is in fact in concert with national objectives.”

The report says that NASA’s commercial crew program manager assured the panel there are no plans to exercise the option, but the panel wondered why the agency would “maintain the option if it truly had no intention of using it,” calling it a “mixed message.”

ASAP was created by Congress following the 1967 Apollo fire that killed the first Apollo crew — Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.   By law, the panel submits its report not only to the NASA Administrator, but to the President of the Senate (who is the Vice President of the United States) and the Speaker of the House (currently Rep. John Boehner).

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