NASA ASAP Concerned About Commercial Crew Safety

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

In a sobering report, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) warned that a combination of funding shortfalls and programmatic decisions have led to an “unacknowledged accretion of risk” that threaten the agency’s Commercial Crew and deep-space human exploration programs.

“As we noted in our 2014 Annual Report and continue to assert this year, NASA’s budget is insufficient to deliver all current undertakings with acceptable programmatic risk,” ASAP stated in its 2015 Annual Report. “Programmatic risk can lead to tradeoffs that are inconsistent with good safety practice.”

Commercial crew has been significantly underfunded over the years, with Congress providing far less money than NASA said it needed. The shortfall has led to delays in the program and “resulted in a design at Critical Design Review that was not as mature as it might have been,” ASAP said.

Credit: NASA ASAP and Parabolic Arc
Credit: NASA ASAP and Parabolic Arc

Boeing and SpaceX are building commercial crew vehicles to take crews to and from the International Space Station. ASAP expressed concerns about schedule pressures on both companies to fly crews in 2017.

Meanwhile, the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle — which are designed for deep space exploration — have not lacked for funding.  However, the funding levels have been essentially flat.

Credit: NASA ASAP
Credit: NASA ASAP

“Historically, most successful programs have reflected a bias towards robust, early funding to support critical design and system decisions,” ASAP said. “Both the amount of resources available and the time distribution of when the funds become available are issues for Exploration Systems Development (ESD) as well as the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).”

The end result has been an increase in risk, including a rise in the maximum acceptable Loss of Crew (LOC) probabilities for SLS and Orion.

“Over the past year, the Panel has noted a continuing and unacknowledged accretion of risk in space flight programs that we believe has the potential to significantly impact crew safety and the safe execution of human space missions,” the report states. “The Panel’s concern is not the result of singular action but the accumulated impact of decisions made and risks assumed—either explicitly or tacitly, in small or large steps—that have mounted up and led to an apparent erosion of safety.”

The International Space Station, which celebrate 15 years of continuous habitation in November, was the one real bright spot in the ASAP report.

“The openness and transparency of the ISS Program have built confidence within this Panel and with others that the program management is in command of the issues,” the report states. “The Program addresses each issue that arises, solves the problem, learns from the experience, adjusts procedures and technologies appropriately, and applies the emerging knowledge to future endeavors. The ISS Program has shown itself to be a learning organization.”

The panel was impressed with how well the station operated despite the loss of the U.S. Cygnus and Dragon cargo ships and a Russian Progress freighter between October 2014 and June 2015.

“Transportation planning and inventory is an incredible balancing act,” ASAP said. “The Program’s ability to continue ISS operations and scientific research after the loss of three ISS support missions is a tribute to the ISS planners and logisticians.”

Key excerpts from the report follow. Download the full report here.

NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP)
2015 Annual Report
Key Excerpts

Funding Adequacy and Profile

As we noted in our 2014 Annual Report and continue to assert this year, NASA’s budget is insufficient to deliver all current undertakings with acceptable programmatic risk. Programmatic risk can lead to tradeoffs that are inconsistent with good safety practice. Historically, most successful programs have reflected a bias towards robust, early funding to support critical design and system decisions. Both the amount of resources available and the time distribution of when the funds become available are issues for Exploration Systems Development (ESD) as well as the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Credit: NASA ASAP and Parabolic Arc
Credit: NASA ASAP and Parabolic Arc

The CCP was underfunded during the critical early years of development. Specifically, the Program received only 57 percent of the requested funding in fiscal year (FY) 2011 through FY 2013. This underfunding in the critical early system design years resulted in a design at Critical Design Review that was not as mature as it might have been. This has also added to the program management and safety challenges. Going forward, there is high risk that the program may not receive sufficient funding to execute the planned program. Careful attention and close cooperation among NASA, the White House, and the Congress is necessary to deliver safe and effective transportation to low-Earth orbit. Again, the ASAP strongly believes competition between two suppliers is essential to ensuring the best and safest design, given the fixed-price contracting strategy.

ESD funding is presented in similar fashion in Figure 3. ESD has been resourced at a greater level than the President’s Budget Request by an average of 10.5 percent during FY 2012 through FY 2015. However, the funding profile has been essentially flat. This distribution of resources reflects one more typically observed in “level-of-effort” programs rather than a budget constructed to achieve the needed design efforts of a major program’s discrete and integrated requirements. In addition, funding is appropriated for individual elements rather than the program as a whole, which limits NASA’s ability to more efficiently allocate resources to prudently address issues. As noted in the conclusion section of the ASAP’s 2014 Annual Report, NASA’s response has been to embrace “…a strategy of ‘capabilities-based’ investments. This strategy develops and matures many of the new technologies and methodologies required for the future but does not deliver an integrated capability.

Credit: NASA ASAP
Credit: NASA ASAP

Accretion of Risk

Over the past year, the Panel has noted a continuing and unacknowledged accretion of risk in space flight programs that we believe has the potential to significantly impact crew safety and the safe execution of human space missions. The Panel’s concern is not the result of singular action but the accumulated impact of decisions made and risks assumed—either explicitly or tacitly, in small or large steps—that have mounted up and led to an apparent erosion of safety. While the ASAP does not assume that a challenging endeavor such as space exploration can be undertaken free of risk, we have consistently stated that, in a healthy, risk-management environment, risks should be deliberately and thoroughly vetted, balanced against the expected gain from taking the risk, and acknowledged candidly and with clear accountability and documentation.

While the programs appear to recognize and accept risk growth in many individual situations, we are not convinced that NASA recognizes or clearly communicates the aggregated impact of individually accepted component risks. Despite the ASAP’s long-standing recommendation, NASA is not clearly and transparently communicating the recognition of the accreted risk, its impact to overall safety, and the rationale of why the increased risk is acceptable. This leaves the ASAP uncertain as to whether this accretion of risk is prudent or not. In some situations, NASA has characterized the changes as negligible and portrayed them as necessary and prudent actions that must be taken to maintain a schedule that appears to us to be an overly restrictive and internally imposed constraint.

Subsequent sections of this Report will provide details pertaining to our specific concerns, but the kind of situations that have led to our disquiet include:

  • The test program for components of Exploration Systems Development (ESD) appears to have gradually eroded since 2010. Among the multiple changes that have diminished the testing rigor are the decisions to reduce the scope of the Ascent Abort 2 (AA2) test and to delete pyrotechnic (pyro) shock/separation testing at the integrated system level.
  • Late changes are being made to the Orion heat shield design with only one opportunity (Exploration Mission-1) to flight test the new design prior to the first crewed mission.
  • Exploration Mission (EM)-2 is scheduled as the first crewed flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the first flight of the Orion environmental control and life support system (ECLSS). This system will not have had an end-to-end flight test to build confidence that it will function safely during a cislunar mission where return to Earth could require up to as much as 11 days. This plan appears to incur an increased risk without a clearly articulated rationale.
  • The SLS infrequent flight rate leads to higher risk due to mission operations team personnel loss and fading memories of lessons learned. EM-1 is scheduled to launch in mid-2018, and EM-2 is scheduled for launch between 2021 and 2023. NASA has told the ASAP that the intent is to launch once per year subsequent to EM-2, but the demand and schedule are vague.
  • There has been growth over time in the maximum acceptable Loss of Crew (LOC) probabilities. This was discussed in the ASAP’s 2014 Annual Report.
  • While much of the accretion of risk we have seen is in ESD, the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is subject to budget and schedule pressures that could lead to similar incremental risk acceptance decisions. As an artifact of the transition from Space Act Agreements to the Commercial Crew contractual arrangements, hazard reporting is behind for the CCP. There is a lack of design maturity at Critical Design Review (CDR); therefore, design is going forward without the benefit of the completed hazard analyses.
  • Additionally, in the CCP, the lack of formality or “paperwork” aspects of design decisions and changes is a concern. There is danger that this will lead to an undesirable and unplanned or unrecognized increase in risk acceptance as schedule and budget pressures mount.

Summary

Nine topic areas, highlighted in this report, are summarized in the table on the following page. They have been broken out to focus attention on individual topics that we feel are worthy of note.

Of the nine topic areas, two are rated as red, indicating they are longstanding and have not yet been adequately addressed. We listed these overarching, red-rated issues separately, because we believe that their resolution would significantly contribute to reducing the risk across a wide range of programs and activities. Had we made these red issues a component of the other items, such as those related specifically to Exploration Systems Development (ESD) and the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), it would have compelled us to rate ESD and CCP red and may have led to misinterpretation by the reader that the red rating of ESD and CCP was due to technical factors in these programs rather than to the overarching issues of inadequate funding and risk management practices. In this way, we are highlighting the high priority we place on addressing the red issues so that a significant cross-cutting benefit can be realized by a number of programs which otherwise would continue to be in a situation of preventable jeopardy.

ASAP 2015 Assessment
The topics highlighted in yellow are important issues or concerns that are either currently being addressed by NASA but are still unresolved, or are not currently being addressed by NASA. These issues will continue to be examined closely by the Panel.

One topic, the International Space Station (ISS), is indicated as green — a positive aspect that is being addressed by NASA, but continues to be followed. The ISS is the largest system humans have ever put into space, is complex, and has safely operated for over 15 years. It is being well managed, but the ASAP continues to monitor the ISS Program closely in light of the dangers associated with human space flight.

  • JS_faster

    Too many pans in the fire.

  • newpapyrus

    The frequency of private Commercial Crew flights annually required for NASA over the next 25 years will be too low to economically sustain multiple companies while also insuring safety.

    That’s why its essential that private Commercial Crew launch companies start transporting other, non government, paying customers into space to private space facilities as soon as possible. There are 50,000 people on the planet that are wealthy enough to afford a flight into space to a private space station. And that needs to be their focus!

    Marcel

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I don’t disagree with your premise but of those 50,000 people on the planet, how many have any interest at all in going to space? Of that number, how many have an interest or a reason to go more than once? Space will not become a significant destination until it becomes a workplace. That will require private enterprise to figure out how to use outer space to make a profit on Earth.

  • windbourne

    While they have a good point about lack of funding, it also ignores the fact that SpaceX has funded this as well. IOW, SpaceX continues to put their own money into this. As such, I suspect that their point does not apply to SpaceX, esp. since they are doing a great deal more testing than is Boeing and even Orion.

  • Emmet Ford

    It seems that both the Air Force and NASA have decided to fan the flames.

  • windbourne

    Totally agree. That is also why I believe that NASA needs to do another COTs for 2 space stations. I have noticed that NASA is working with O-ATK on them building a tin-can space station, but I have to think that Boeing, L-Mart, or even ILC Dover.

    But, I differ that the main market is rich ppl. far more likely will be nations putting together space programs once private space is focused on the moon.

  • redneck

    If a substantial fraction of that 50,000 fly, prices will likely drop such that 500,000 could afford it. The lower the price, the higher the percentage that will have the youth (relatively) and desire to go.

    Workplace is the key word. How many people would go to offshore oil rigs or do commercial fishing without the paychecks and profits? There are numerous examples of places people won’t go without the P&P.

  • redneck

    For an overused example, how many would climb Everest if it paid a years’ wages instead of cost it?

  • TimAndrews868

    “SpaceX has funded this as well”
    Not just SpaceX. Coming up with substantial funding of their own that would be augmented by money from NASA was a requirement for all the bidders.

  • Destructor1701

    You’ve got “green” written in red in the last paragraph. What is this, a concentration test?!

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    While I don’t doubt the majority of these bullet points, I’ll say this. The STS failed these criteria as well except the last two and the second to the last was because NASA fabricated failure rates out of thin air, and the last one because STS never let go of the tracked hardware operations procedures, yet NASA soldiered on. Rand Simberg is right, safety is not an option. I’m all for reasonable bows to safety and good design, but at some point you have to fly with what you have. NASA understands this, and did just that with all it’s manned systems in the past. Astronauts are given parades and respected because they are going up against unforgiving nature, unforgiving and unrelenting leadership cadres that are constantly compromising their safety in the unending search of management to get more out of people with less investment.

  • Douglas Messier

    LOL!

    Thanks.

  • PK Sink

    “But, I differ that the main market is rich ppl. far more likely will be nations putting together space programs once private space is focused on the moon.”

    Yup! And good to see congress giving NASA some bucks to get the hab program rolling. Maybe we’ll have some good news in about 180 days.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Why the Commercial Crew headline Doug. CC was but one in nine areas under discussion and seems to be doing well and in fact has improved markedly over their previous review in the opinion of ASAP.
    Could it be that the headline is a means of attracting more comment than might otherwise be the case. LOL. Thanks for the review.
    Cheers

  • mattmcc80
  • Vladislaw

    The whole point of dual use hardware. The government gets to use it also for a price lower than they could provide for just themselves. Also the taxpayer gets more bang for the buck.

  • Vladislaw

    Nations play at keeping up with the joneses just as much as people do. When a 2nd or 3rd tier country can have a FULL UP, crewed space program based in LEO and start swimming in the deep end of the pool just like NASA it will be a paradigm shift in thinking.

  • Vladislaw

    Just like ANY extreme vacation of the wealthy, space will be also. Keeping up with the joneses is alive and well in the wealthy set. So it will become a right of passage like owning a 100 million dollar super yacht a sports team, a penthouse overlooking central park …

  • Vladislaw

    That is not even including the number that would just put it on a credit card and make payments or fund it though their company and get some of it written off by calling it some kind of experiment.

  • windbourne

    I would say that Doug’s pointing it out is very valid.
    Private crew is supposed to be live in the next 1.5 year.
    This is one of the closest issues coming out of that.

  • Douglas Messier

    Precisely. SLS & Orion have many years before crews fly. And ample funding to address issues.

  • Douglas Messier

    The two categories of the nine that are red affect commercial crew and deep-space human exploration. The accretion of risk is especially worrisome. Commercial crew is the most urgent of the NASA’s two human spaceflight programs given its schedule. All of this is clearly explained in the text portions of the above post.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Ok missed that so thanks.
    I would say however that ASAP is an extremely cautious body and their comments reflect this position.
    In general I believe that it’s time for the hsf community to accept greater levels of risk and understand that hsf like any human endeavour will always entail risk. If we want to move outwards and explore space as human missions then I believe we need to understand that this will entail loss of life at some point or other. You cannot eliminate all risk. No new human ventures have ever been undertaken without loss of life.
    That’s the price we pay for expanding knowledge. HSF should be no different. If we’re so concerned about loss of life in space, then why are we not so when it comes to wars, driving, flying, etc, etc. Life is not permanent, nothing is.
    Just my $0.02.
    Cheers

  • Aerospike

    I would say if the price to afford a limited time lease of a space station, the paradigm shift will be that not nations entertain space programs, but universities will.

  • loupgarous

    China’s probably going to leapfrog the space station option. They and perhaps India are looking toward lunar colonization.
    Space – and especially real estate in space – will be the New World of the future, with nation-states jostling for slices of the action.

  • loupgarous

    That was in this article – the fact that acceptable loss of crew probability has been inching upward in SLS and Orion crew module.

  • loupgarous

    However, SpaceX has been spending their own money on actual launches, and more lavishly than Boeing. They have a vision, are not risk-averse when it comes to testing new technological capabilities, and are exceedingly transparent when it comes to admitting when something broke. Transparency and NASA haven’t gone together in a while, ASAP excepted.

  • Vladislaw

    What they appear to be actually funding it would seem the station is first and foremost for human activity, I do not see anything relating to lunar landing of humans going on.. can you point to some links of actual hardware programs being funded?

  • Vladislaw

    1/3 of a station can house two people. If a country’s government decides to lease and put 1 person on board they would still have the option of allowing a tourist or university to send up another person.

  • loupgarous

    Their recent press release touting their mapping of the far side of the Moon referred to “patrolling activities” – not a reference to hardware program funding but a possible pointer to their future plans to nationalize areas on the Moon or in space. You don’t “patrol” an area unless you are asserting jurisdiction over it.