ASAP: Inadequate Commercial Crew Funding Risking Unacceptable Safety Compromises

Commercial Crew Program Funding

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On the same day that NASA and its commercial partners held a press conference to highlight progress in the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), the space agency’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released a report spotlighting worries about chronic Congressional underfunding of the program will lead to decisions that diminish safety standards for the new spacecraft.

“The ASAP is concerned that some will champion an approach that is a current option contained in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement. There is risk this optional, orbital flight-test demonstration with a non-NASA crew could yield two standards of safety—one reflecting NASA requirements, and one with a higher risk set of commercial requirements. It also raises questions of who acts as certification authority and what differentiates public from private accountability,” wrote ASAP Chairman Joseph W. Dyer in the report’s cover letter.

In the letter, Dyer says that the Obama Administration’s requests for CCP have been sliced in half each year, a practice that is likely to continue for the $830 million requested for 2013.

“In our report we highlight issues related to: a.) Commercial Crew Program (CCP), b.) Exploration Systems Development, c.) Funding Uncertainty, d.) International Space Station, e.) Technical Authority, and f.) Risk Management. Of these, the Funding Uncertainty and Commercial Crew Program are interrelated and of the most concern. Reprinted from the body of the report is a chart depicting the funding history of the CCP:

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“For the last two years, the CCP appropriation has been approximately one half of the budget request. Informal communications with congressional staffs indicate this will probably be the case again in Fiscal Year (FY) 13.”

This practice has created problems for NASA in implementing the program, forcing changes in strategy that could jeopardize safety. Meanwhile, Congress has consistently complained about a lack of clarity and stability in a program that it has consistently underfunded.

“In carrying out our responsibilities, the ASAP hears both sides of the story. The NASA program team highlights inability to execute the program of record and grapples with the necessity to modify acquisition strategy to adjust for the funding shortfalls. The Congress notes the lack of credible cost estimate, the absence of an integrated schedule, and ‘program instability.’ In the Panel’s opinion, a consensus between the Congress and NASA will be required to resolve this conundrum.

“In FY13, we predict this planning-funding disconnect will again drive a change to acquisition strategy, schedule, and/or safety risk. The ASAP is concerned that some will champion an approach that is a current option contained in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement. There is risk this optional, orbital flight-test demonstration with a non-NASA crew could yield two standards of safety—one reflecting NASA requirements, and one with a higher risk set of commercial requirements. It also raises questions of who acts as certification authority and what differentiates public from private accountability. Separating the level of safety demanded in the system from the unique and hard-earned knowledge that NASA possesses introduces new risks and unique challenges to the normal precepts of public safety and mission responsibility. We are concerned that NASA’s CCiCap 2014 ‘Option’ prematurely signals tacit acceptance of this commercial requirements approach absent serious consideration by all the stakeholders on whether this higher level of risk is in fact in concert with national objectives.”

In the report,ASAP agrees with NASA’s plan to have two competing commercial providers developing spacecraft through certification. However, that would require an increase in funding beginning in Fiscal Year 2013 in order to complete the certification and begin commercial flights to the International Space Station by Fiscal Year 2017.

ASAP believes such funding is unlikely. The limited funding and the reliance upon Space Act Agreements (SAAs), which give NASA far less input and insight into decisions by commercial partners, would have a negative impact on safety.

“There appear to be few options available to NASA when the budget is reduced. These include stretching the schedule, reducing performance, and/or obtaining additional funding. Given NASA’s budget history, it is unlikely there will be additional funding. The likely option will be to make tradeoffs and changes to performance measures that would include accepting additional safety risk. Such changes are allowed under SAAs and are not under NASA’s control. NASA would have limited visibility into and no oversight of those tradeoffs and changes, which could lead to unknowingly accepting substantial increases in risk to the safety of crews. NASA would have no way to adequately evaluate and address the critical tradeoffs, which could lead to unknown risks and safety implications. [Emphasis mine] As budgets are reduced and funding uncertainty increases, it is essential that NASA increase its awareness of possible safety implications and address those immediately.”

ASAP conclusion is that despite years of often bitter debate, the country still lacks a consensus on its human spaceflight program. “In the view of the ASAP, it is time for all stakeholders to reach a consensus on what the Nation is attempting to accomplish in human spaceflight and then fund that effort adequately and consistently,” the report states.

You can download the full rep0rt here.