Safety Panel: NASA Urgently Must Define Its Future Role in Human Spaceflight

Safety Panel: NASA Urgently Must Define Its Future Role in Human Spaceflight

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel told NASA today that the agency is at an inflection point in its management of  human spaceflight programs as it relies more and more heavily on partnerships with the commercial sector. NASA urgently must strategically define its future role and articulate a vision and principles to guide it for at least the next 20 years.

Created by Congress following the 1967 fire that killed the first Apollo crew, ASAP advises both the NASA Administrator and Congress on safety issues at the agency. Its latest annual report, released today, footstomps issues it raised last year about how the NASA-private sector relationship in human spaceflight is evolving and strategic decisions are needed to ensure safety.

In the past, human spaceflight programs were defined, directed, and executed by NASA, but now key programs “have been almost entirely managed by industry” to lower costs, accelerate schedules, and allow NASA to focus on exploration beyond low Earth orbit. This “rebalancing of roles and responsibilities between NASA and industry has generally succeeded,” but ASAP worries that NASA is not thinking strategically about the transformation that lies ahead.

“Considering its ambitious goals and constrained budget, for NASA—and hence the United States—to continue to play a strategic leadership role in space, the Agency must transform. While private industry efforts are an ever more important factor in the U.S. government’s future endeavors, the commercial sector alone has not, and will not, be the vehicle that drives national goals. Consequently, the Agency will need to operate differently—from strategic planning and how it approaches program management, to workforce development, facility maintenance, acquisition strategies, contract types, and partnerships.   …

“The Panel believes that NASA’s vision for the future, and a clear definition of how it will evaluate and make decisions related to risk (in addition to how it will manage and execute programs), are extremely important factors in ensuring human space flight safety. As a result, the primary focus of this report is the urgent need for NASA to strategically define its future role and articulate a vision and a set of guiding principles to direct its efforts.”

ASAP recommends that —

  • NASA develop a strategic vision for the future of space exploration and operations for at least the next 20 years driven by how it will understand and manage risk in this more complex environment,
  • establish a “Board of Directors” including the Center Directors and other key officials that focuses on benefits to the agency as a whole rather than individual parts, and
  • manage Artemis — NASA’s effort to return humans to the Moon and conduct sustainable operations thereafter — as an integrated program.

NASA’s approach to the management of Artemis frequently is a topic at ASAP’s quarterly public meetings. Although NASA talks about Artemis as a “program,” in fact there is no single program with a program manager. The Space Launch System rocket, Orion crew spacecraft, and associated Exploration Ground Systems are individual programs their own program managers.

 “In other words, there is no clearly defined leader of the enterprise, transparently endowed with the ultimate authority, responsibility, and accountability to direct all Artemis-related programs and ensure full synchronization and integration of effort.”

The panel reports that NASA instead is using a bottoms-up approach relying on “lower-level workers to raise integration concerns across sub-programs” and responding to a “large bureaucracy of panels and boards” without authoritative guidance.

Artemis is a very complex endeavor. In addition to SLS/Orion, which will transport astronauts to and from lunar orbit, Artemis also requires Human Landing Systems to take astronauts from orbit down to and back from the lunar surface, a small space station called Gateway in lunar orbit, and spacesuits and other equipment needed for operations on the lunar surface all provided by a collection of government, commercial, and international partners.

Source: 2021 Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Annual Report, January 2022. p. 22 ESDMD is the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

ASAP points out that just as there is no single program manager, there also is no prime integrating contractor, comparable to Boeing’s role in the International Space Station, that can provide a “whole picture view” of how everything must come together.

“Since a Prime Integrating Contractor has often been responsible for risk management integration throughout development in previous programs, the Panel advises NASA to gain clarity on how this deviation from previous program practices is achieving equivalent risk management outcomes.”

ASAP also is concerned that NASA is using a mix of acquisition models for Artemis — traditional contracts for  SLS and Orion, but service contracts for the Human Landing System and other elements — that complicate risk management. “Every acquisition” needs a “consistent unambiguous approach to risk management that spans the entire enterprise,” but it is not clear if that’s the case with the Artemis contracts.

ASAP cited two instances that already arose in the commercial crew program as examples of what could happen. One involved the first operational flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Crew-1. It successfully splashed down at night, but only after last minute communications and decisions because NASA and SpaceX  “did not have a common understanding of relative risk levels” of daytime versus nighttime landings.

The other was Boeing’s second attempt at the Starliner Orbital Flight Test in August 2021, OFT-2, an uncrewed test flight that had to be scrubbed about two hours before launch because 13 propulsion valves would not open. ASAP says in today’s report that NASA and Boeing knew about the stuck valves during the Flight Readiness Review prior to the launch, but “differed in how they characterized the risk.”  [see update below.] Boeing considered it low, while NASA ranked it as moderate, indicating to ASAP that the two “do not share a common understanding of how to assess and characterize risk.”

“Equally disturbing was that the program got very close to launching the spacecraft before the stuck-valve issue was identified. This is exactly the type of situation that the Panel urges NASA to aggressively avoid as the Agency proceeds with assigning Artemis contracts.”

Update: At the January 27, 2022 ASAP meeting, panel member Sandy Magnus said the report was in error saying that the difference in characterizing risk during the Flight Readiness Review concerned the OFT-2 propulsion valves. The valve problem was not discovered until after the FRR. The issue during the FRR was about parachutes. She pointed out that the message the panel wants to convey is the same, however — the company and NASA characterize risk differently.

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