The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel submitted the 2014 annual report to Congress on January 28. Established in 1968, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel is charged with evaluating NASA’s safety and performance. Included in the report is information gathered from the Panel’s quarterly public meetings, direct observation of NASA operations, and discussions with NASA management, employees and contractors. The annual report also examines NASA’s compliance with recommendations from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Joseph Dyer served as chair of the 9 member Aerospace Advisory Panel.
The report summarizes NASA accomplishments and milestones in 2014. International Space Station (ISS) operation and utilization, infrastructure management at Marshall Space Flight Center, assessment of NASA technical capabilities, and commercial space developments are addressed in the report. Also presented are milestones in exploration systems development and commercial cargo and commercial crew to low-Earth orbit. In line with past report the Panel highlights “the mismatch between the breadth of the Agency’s undertakings and the funding available to execute them.”
The report notes:
“The Panel has been impressed with the detail, openness, and transparency with which ISS status, problems, analyses, solutions, and risks have been discussed. Although there are some concerns, as there will be in any large, operational human space flight program, anomalies have been well-handled by the team, and the ISS Program appears to be very well-managed.”
“NASA continues to make progress on its flagship human exploration activity, which consists of three programs: Orion, including the crew module, the service module, and the launch abort system; the Space Launch System (SLS), which is the new heavy-lift, exploration-class rocket; and Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO). Orion’s first flight test, Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1, was launched December 5 on a Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and recovered successfully from its Pacific Ocean splashdown by NASA’s GSDO and the U.S. Navy. EFT-1 tested many of Orion’s key subsystems, including its heat shield, electronics, and parachutes.”
“Other noteworthy NASA events over the past year include the continued robotic exploration of Mars, a number of successful technology demonstrations, the launch of several Earth science missions, and continued progress in developing the next generation of air transportation systems”.
Risk transparency issues and investigations of mishaps were some concerns raised by the Advisory Panel which also examined potential problems with NASA culture, process for mishap investigation, and funding. Regarding risk-transparency, which the Panel considers to be a long-standing concern at NASA, the report notes:
“Risk transparency, especially regarding explicitly accepted, unmitigated risk, is paramount to the management of NASA’s space flight–associated activities. Risk communication concerning commercial crew activities by the Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development has been less than forthcoming. Because Probabilistic Risk Assessment results provide a risk assessment of the design capability at maturity, actual risks for early operations of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion could be significantly higher than the calculated or ‘advertised’ risk. Because the perception of external stakeholders is vitally important, NASA’s Office of Communications must be cautious not to create or reinforce inaccurate perceptions of risk.”
The report recommends that NASA should have a “constancy of purpose” for the human space flight program. It concludes that “NASA’s process for mishap investigation is vulnerable to influences that could undermine full discovery of a mishap’s causal factors,” and the Panel “continues to be concerned about Exploration systems Development integrated risk and the current thresholds for the Space Launch system/Orion system on launch and recovery.”
The report offers recommendations from the Panel in areas such as radiation risk decision-making on deep space missions, NASA Knowledge Management System risk assessments, NASA risk management accountability, deorbit capability of the International Space Station, software development, and the Five-Year Roadmap for improving the Agency’s investigation process.