Safety Panel Expresses Concerns About NASA’s Human Spaceflight and Exploration Program

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Publication date: 
2 February 2011
Number: 
11

“Clarity  and constancy of purpose among NASA, Congress, and the White House are the  ASAP’s overarching concerns.”  - Aerospace  Safety Advisory Panel Annual Report for 2010

A  new report by NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel reveals that the space  agency’s new human spaceflight and exploration program is a work in  progress.  The 21-page report praises NASA’s  accomplishments in 2010, and commends the agency for its “timely response and  attention” to recommendations that the committee made in 2008, 2009, and  2010.  Looking ahead, the committee is  troubled by significant unknowns about NASA’s future programs, concluding “uncertainty  has become a critical issue.”

The  eight-member panel is chaired by Vice Admiral Joe Dyer USN (Ret.)  The panel was established in 1968,  and has been required to issue an annual  report since the Shuttle Columbia accident.   Further information on the panel and a copy of the report can be viewed here

Of  note, the panel issued its report in mid-January after the enactment of NASA’s  new reauthorization act   that included language describing the mandated new heavy lift rocket and crew  capsule. Despite this language, many congressional hearings, and Administration  statements about NASA’s future programs, the Advisory Panel asks:

“What  is NASA’s exploration mission? The debate’s concentration on the ability of  commercial providers to offer transportation to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has  overshadowed the much larger debate about exploration beyond LEO.  What should our next destination goal be? An  asteroid? The Moon? Mars? The decision affects the necessary technology  programs needed to prepare for such a mission.”

The  report continues:

“More  importantly, from the aspect of safety, the lack of a defined mission can  negatively affect workforce morale and the ability to attract and maintain the  necessary skill sets needed for this high-technology venture. The lack of clarity  and constancy of purpose increases the likelihood that essential knowledge and  competencies in the workforce (either contractor or Government), such as those  involving important safety considerations, lessons learned, and past  experience, will not be present to effectively reduce risk going into the  future.”

The  Advisory Panel found problems in other aspects of NASA’s redefined  programs.  “Even for commercial  transportation to LEO, we find uncertainty” the report states, with the panel’s  concerns centering on acquisition strategy, oversight, safety standards, and  liability. 

There  is considerable discussion in the report about the need for NASA to move  quickly to promulgate an acquisition strategy, spacecraft human rating  requirements, structures for knowledge transfer, and the workforce and safety  culture.  The report also discusses  challenges to the International Space Station and dependency on the Russian  Soyuz vehicle for crew transportation to the station.

While  NASA will have prime responsibility for many of the issues raised by the panel,  active participation by the Administration and the Congress will be  required.  In concluding the report, the  panel states:

“The  ASAP believes that lack of clarity and constancy of purpose among NASA,  Congress, and the White House is a key safety concern. Earlier this year, the  President signed a NASA Authorization Bill that reoriented the Agency’s human  spaceflight efforts; however, NASA’s future human exploration mission plans are  uncertain. From the aspect of safety, the lack of a defined mission can  negatively affect workforce morale and the ability to attract and maintain the  necessary skill sets needed for this high-technology venture. Congress, the  White House, and NASA must quickly reach a consensus position on the Agency’s  future and our Nation’s future in space.”

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