NASA Safety Panel Finds Urgent Need for Clear Direction, Commercial Space Acquisition Strategy

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel that offers guidance to NASA has released its annual report for 2010. A key finding, unsurprisingly, is that the long uncertainty over the space agency’s future is causing a great deal of confusion and lowering morale at NASA centers, possibly jeopardizing safety operations.

The ASAP report also includes a lengthy section concerning NASA’s plans to procure human spaceflight on a commercial basis, with considerable emphasis on the need for the space agency to develop a clear acquisition strategy.

Urgent Need to Promulgate Acquisition Strategy

An acquisition strategy is fundamental to the development of standards and requirements for commercial crew transportation. The Panel has emphasized the necessity of developing and promulgating a good acquisition strategy as quickly as possible.

Key excerpts of the report that deal with clarity of purpose and commercial space are reproduced after the break.


A. Clarity and Constancy of Purpose

Clarity and constancy of purpose among NASA, Congress, and the White House are the ASAP’s overarching concerns.

While we are seeing the end of the Space Shuttle Program and the proposed termination of the Constellation Program and its budget authorization, we have yet to see any clear articulation or funding for a new plan. In this discussion, the ASAP makes a basic assumption that the United States desires to retain a human spaceflight and exploration program, although the precise form and extent have yet to be defined.

For a considerable period, the need for clarity and constancy of purpose has been a key ASAP message. Today the issue is still present and becoming ever more pressing. 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. 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.

Even for commercial transportation to LEO, we find uncertainty. What is to be the acquisition strategy to integrate commercial programs to support NASA’s LEO mission? What is to be the system of oversight that protects both NASA astronaut safety and general public safety, given a system of commercial providers? If something goes wrong, who would be liable? When one considers assigning Government “employees” (i.e., astronauts) to a commercial vehicle, what are the criteria for validating their safety, what is the process for determining that the criteria have been met, and how do we know that initial safety precautions/designs have been maintained? In effect, how safe is safe enough for either exploration or sustainment missions? Clearly, uncertainty is driving the safety risk factor to a higher level, as it does in any endeavor. Space travel’s significant challenges merely heighten the exposure and the consequences.

NASA’s stated goals from 2008 to 2010 have changed dramatically. The Moon and Mars sequential exploration objectives were substantially changed or discarded, and associated hardware development such as the Constellation Program was proposed for cancellation. These changes, together with others such as questions regarding the use of Orion, are examples of how uncertainty has become a critical issue.

A key point has been made by each Center that the ASAP has visited over this past year—the lack of guidance, clarity, and mission has increased the potential for risk, negative consequences to the workforce, and additional expense resulting from duplicative efforts or efforts that are ultimately determined to be unnecessary due to a change of course.

In the ASAP’s view, it is not in the Nation’s best interest to continue functioning in this manner. The Congress, the White House, and NASA must quickly reach a consensus position on the future of the Agency and the future of the United States in space. The discussion must move beyond LEO and on to the necessary steps needed to achieve our future in space, whatever that might be. The constancy of purpose drives workforce loyalty and high achievement and attracts high levels of expertise that clearly make for a safer and lower-risk solution.

The ASAP recognizes that this is a fundamental problem that NASA alone cannot solve. It goes beyond the Agency—and clearly is on the shoulders of the Administration and Congress, and that is where it ultimately must be addressed.

Boeing's proposed commercial capsule.
Artist's conception of Boeing's commercial crew module. (Credit: Boeing)

B. Human Spaceflight Acquisition Strategy and Safety Approach

The ASAP has never taken a position on whether space transportation involving NASA astronauts should be an internally developed program or a commercial program; however, the Panel has stated that its position and intent is that NASA achieve well-defined programs that can be completed safely, can be executed efficiently, and are in the Nation’s best interest, in whatever direction the Administration and Congress choose to go forward.

Understanding the human spaceflight acquisition strategy going forward is a challenge that the ASAP discussed this year.

Acquisition Strategy—What Does It Mean?

“Acquisition strategy” includes a myriad of things—an understanding of what is being procured for what purpose, what type of contract will be used, how competition will be interjected, how oversight and insight will be part of the plan, how the product/services will be certified, and how the bona fides of any agreement will be met.

Acquisition strategy is a central column in the Government’s program initiation decision, the foundation for the request for proposal provided to industry, and the place where the Agency identifies the risks being accepted. Government procurement contracting officers are required to select a contract type that is consistent with the level of program risk. The alternatives may include fixed-price, including fixed-price-incentive, or cost-reimbursable-type contracts.

Is Acquisition Strategy Linked to Safety?

Acquisition strategy is PROFOUNDLY linked to safety. The principles of design and system robustness, as well as the delicate trades among cost, schedule, performance, and safety, are communicated to the supplier via the request for proposal that is derived from the acquisition strategy. Acquisition strategy articulates the design goals and optimizes placement on a continuum between “cheapest achievable” and “best possible.” Additionally, the strategy lays out the success criteria and reward structure. The safety linkage is intimate and inseparable.

Financial Risk from the Supplier’s Perspective

In our economic system, publicly traded corporations are properly charged with acting in their investors’ best interests. Corporate boards are required to align to this interest in carrying out their governance responsibilities. This alignment requires risk-and-reward assessment. The risk to corporations and investors is higher when producing under a fixed-price-type contract. However, so are the potential rewards that can be garnered during development or potential follow-on procurement.

Fixed-price-type contracts are appropriate when a program is not overly complex or technically challenging. When there are significant complexities and risks (e.g., technical, cost, schedule, or safety), cost-reimbursable-type contracts are generally considered to be more appropriate and carry lower fiduciary risk to the corporation.

Financial Risk from the Government’s Perspective

The ASAP members have long and extensive experience with major procurements that are complex, risky, and similar to NASA’s Commercial Space Transportation Program. It is the Panel’s opinion that the ultimate financial risk to the Government is comparable when appropriately utilizing a cost-reimbursable-type contract or when inappropriately utilizing a fixed-price contract. In the inappropriate fixed-price arena, contract changes, renegotiations, and redirection yield “fixedprice” increases. Almost invariably in high-risk, fixed-price contracts, mistakes are made on both the Government and the commercial sides. In cost-reimbursable-type contracts, the Government agrees up front to fund the risk and uncertainties (though they may be bounded and the burden may be shared).

Contract Type and Safety Environment

Safety can suffer in high-risk, complex programs—or programs with new or unproven technology— when operating in a fixed-price environment. The Government (at least at first) demands delivery at the agreed-to price. The contractor responds with belt-tightening and cost-cutting. Too often, employees are pressured to provide less—less time, less quality, and less safety. The U.S. Navy’s multi-billion-dollar A-12 aircraft program, which remains in litigation after almost 20 years, is a classic case study in complex, high-risk, fixed-priced development contracts.

The ASAP is not yet comfortable with the harmony between technical readiness and the anticipated fixed-price contracting approach for NASA’s Commercial Space Transportation Program. A lack of compatibility between these elements can often increase risk as funding runs short and time runs out.

Urgent Need to Promulgate Acquisition Strategy

An acquisition strategy is fundamental to the development of standards and requirements for commercial crew transportation. The Panel has emphasized the necessity of developing and promulgating a good acquisition strategy as quickly as possible.

The Human Rating Requirements (HRR)—Another NASA “Commercial Space” Challenge Related to Acquisition Strategy and Safety

Human-rating a spacecraft is not a feature one can just simply add on once the vehicle is designed. It is a process that requires endurance and attention to detail to ensure that safety is driven into every aspect of the vehicle design and operations from the beginning in order to manage risk to an acceptable predefined level. Optimal safety and reliability are strategically and systematically incorporated into the vehicle from day one, concurrent with critical trade decisions considering vehicle mass and cost.

One of the key questions is the appropriate level of insight and oversight in any resulting agreement for commercial crew transportation services. If the acquisition strategy is for NASA (which holds fundamental knowledge about human spaceflight in the U.S.) to be “hands-off,” then there is risk that the needed knowledge is not transferred. Also, if NASA is hands-off but is going to make the determination on whether or not the system is sufficiently safe after it is designed and built, it would be a good thing if NASA communicated to the contractor whether or not the design is progressing successfully before the contractor spends billions of dollars. Somewhere between “hands-off” and “overbearing Government involvement” in commercial enterprise that drives up overhead and other costs, there is an optimal balance point. NASA is making progress at figuring out where that is, but it is an impressive challenge and one that will continue and requires further development.

E. FAA/NASA Relationship

The President’s FY 2011 Budget Request contains the following direction: “The budget funds NASA to contract with industry to provide astronaut transportation to the International Space Station as soon as possible, reducing the risk of relying solely on foreign crew transport for years to come. A strengthened U.S. commercial space industry will bring needed competition, act as a catalyst for the development of other new businesses capitalizing on the affordable access to space, help create thousands of new jobs, and help reduce the cost of human access to space.”

Although there are many implementation details yet to be defined, the Administration’s clear desire to develop a commercial crew capability has significant implications for how NASA’s human spaceflight program will operate in future years. Under current law, if a company is tasked with carrying out a launch, even if that launch is being conducted for the Government, the launch must be licensed by the FAA in order to ensure public safety. To ensure the safety of NASA employees and equipment aboard these launches, NASA must establish its own requirements, determine whether they have been met, and approve each launch. To ensure that NASA’s safety and mission requirements are satisfied, it will be very important for NASA and the FAA to work together closely in providing Government oversight for these operations. This new partnership must be broad enough to consider the safety not only of those on the ground, but also those in the spacecraft and even the payload aboard the spacecraft. Such a process has to envelop the vehicles’ design, maintenance, and operation; the launch/escape systems; and the ground infrastructure. Oversight is not an event; it is a process that continues as long as the system remains in service.

The potential benefits from a strong interagency partnership are evident. NASA has been launching humans into space for almost 50 years. At the same time, the FAA has more than 25 years of experience in regulating commercial space launches and 84 years (with its predecessor organizations) in regulating commercial air travel. The challenge will be for NASA and the FAA to avoid levying conflicting and/or unnecessarily burdensome requirements on the launch operators while still ensuring safe operations.

The Panel believes that it will be very important for NASA and the FAA to “practice” their new relationship
during cargo-delivery and vehicle-development missions over the next several years. For example, it has already been decided that Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) missions will involve FAA licensing. Advantages of this approach include the capability to use existing processes for insurance, cross-waivers, Government indemnification for third-party excess claims, and the FAA’s ability to take enforcement actions, if necessary, to ensure compliance with safety-related regulations. Continuing this same philosophy during the Commercial Crew Development demonstration missions, prior to the flights that are scheduled to carry NASA astronauts, would offer additional opportunities to ensure that the appropriate safety measures were being incorporated in the operations.

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft in orbit

K. Russian Dependence

After the last Shuttle flight, the U.S. and its ISS partners will be dependent on Russian, European, or Japanese vehicles for logistics resupply of the ISS until a commercial resupply capability becomes operational. Information to date shows progress on the U.S. commercial space effort; however, it remains approximately one year behind its original schedule. The U.S. and all other ISS participants will also be solely dependent on Russian Soyuz vehicles for crew transport to and from the ISS until a commercial space transportation services provider becomes operational. While this does not immediately translate into a safety issue, anytime one depends on a single-source solution, one runs the added risk of interruption in service due to some unforeseen contingency affecting that source. We have no evidence that Progress and Soyuz will be anything but as reliable as they have been; however, risk rises as the simple offshoot of dependence on a single-source provider.

Another potential utilization of the Russian capability could arise if it were required to perform an emergency evacuation or deorbit of the ISS. During the latter part of 2010, the ASAP began looking more closely at contingency plans for these circumstances. Since the current NASA authorization and the likely appropriation would eliminate the CEV, NASA has been looking at other options to perform this effort. As noted earlier, these include the modified Progress option, which would offer the most capability, but NASA has not yet completed discussions with the Russians on how that could be done. The ASAP will continue to monitor this work in the coming year and report on the resulting plan in its next annual report.

With the ISS now more dependent on Russian partnership for logistics, crew transport, and possible deorbit (at either planned end-of-life or under emergency conditions), the ASAP feels that further analysis on the risks inherent in this single-source service scenario should continue to be assessed, and it will be a regular part of its activity in the upcoming year. We would expect, for example, to elicit some discussion from the ISS Program about the recent docking incidents and the assessment of their safety impact (if any). An assessment and review of the ISS logistics line of balance (LOB), which would give insight into risks potentially generated by one or more missed Progress visits, will also be an item of interest next year.