NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel’s Observations on Key Issues

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Publication date: 
26 April 2010

Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Ranking Minority Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) expressed great interest in the testimony of John Frost at last week’s hearing  on the Obama Administration’s new space exploration policy.  Frost is a member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP.)  Senators at this hearing spoke repeatedly of the high priority they gave to astronaut safety issues.  “When it comes to the space program, we are a bipartisan group” said Mikulski.

The panel was established in 1968 following the Apollo 1 fire.  As an independent, senior advisory committee within NASA, the panel, according to its description of duties, “shall advise the NASA Administrator and the Congress with respect to the hazards of proposed or existing facilities and proposed operations with respect to the adequacy of proposed or existing safety standards, and with respect to management and culture related to safety.”  The eight-member panel is chaired by Vice Admiral Joe Dyer USN, (Ret).

Senators had earlier received testimony from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden about the Administration’s new policy.  Frost told the senators “we don’t have a dog in this fight.”  His 4 ½ pages of written testimony summarized a report submitted to Congress in 2009.    Excerpts from his written testimony follow:

Space Shuttle Life Span:

“In view of the inherent hazards of the basic Shuttle multifunction design, the age of some critical subsystems, and the need to recertify the fleet as identified by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the panel believes that the life of the space shuttle should not be extended significantly beyond completion of its current manifest.  To do otherwise would require funding the substantial efforts required to ensure that life extension vulnerabilities are identified and corrected in a timely manner.  Additionally, the inherent risk of continuing to operate this system would have to be accepted by the Nation’s leaders.”

Follow-on to Shuttle - Ares 1 Vehicle:

“We found that the Ares 1 vehicle has been optimized for crew safety since its inception.  Because of fundamental vehicle architecture choices made at its concept stage, the widespread use of heritage-based subsystems with proven track records and the intense involvement of experienced NASA space design professionals serving as the system integrators, the ASAP believes the Ares1/Orion offer a high degree of inherent safety.  In fact, they are being designed to provide a ten-fold improvement over the safety of existing vehicles.  In our opinion, space vehicle safety simply cannot be taken as ‘a given’ as some would like to be the case.  As we stated in our 2009 report to Congress, ‘To abandon Ares 1 as baseline vehicle for an alternative without demonstrated capability nor proven superiority, or even equivalence, is unwise and probably not cost-effective.’”

Follow-on to Shuttle - Commercial Providers:

“We are aware of course that several commercial entities hope to provide safe, low-cost access to Low Earth Orbit in the not too distant future.  We have not evaluated their proposals and cannot comment on their eventual safety; however we must point out that NASA has not yet established any safety requirements for commercial providers.  Even more importantly, the Agency has not yet established a process that can provide the right mix of insight and oversight to ensure the safety of NASA astronauts traveling in these vehicles.  The safety of potential commercial providers cannot be evaluated until key safety requirements, such as the acceptable risk level for Loss of Crew, are established and proposed designs are evaluated against them.  While progress is now being made on establishing these requirements and processes, it is too early to tell if the commercial options that are contemplated can eventually be deemed safe enough for our astronauts.”

Follow-on to Shuttle - The Bottom Line:

“Our bottom line recommendation is not to abandon the well-established progress made on the Program of Record in favor of an alternative, until such time that it is determined that the alternative provides equal or better safety for our astronauts.”

Workforce Transition:

“If a major change in the future roles and missions of these NASA workers is the path chosen, it is imperative that a new transition plan be developed quickly, clearly showing these workers their place in the new vision.  The turmoil created by uncertainty can result in loss of key personnel which presents obvious safety concerns.”

Resources and Schedules:

“. . . resources and schedules provided to NASA must be consistent with whatever mission they are assigned.  Asking NASA to attempt too much, too fast, with too little can only lead to danger and disappointment.”