FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Safety Panel Expresses Concerns About NASA’s Human Spaceflight and Exploration Program

Richard M. Jones
Number 11 - February 2, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

Adjust text size enlarge text shrink text    |    Print this pagePrint this page    |     Bookmark and Share     |    rss feed for FYI

“Clarity and constancy of purpose among NASA, Congress, and the White House are the ASAP’s overarching concerns.”  - Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Annual Report for 2010

A new report by NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel reveals that the space agency’s new human spaceflight and exploration program is a work in progress.  The 21-page report praises NASA’s accomplishments in 2010, and commends the agency for its “timely response and attention” to recommendations that the committee made in 2008, 2009, and 2010.  Looking ahead, the committee is troubled by significant unknowns about NASA’s future programs, concluding “uncertainty has become a critical issue.”

The eight-member panel is chaired by Vice Admiral Joe Dyer USN (Ret.)  The panel was established in 1968,  and has been required to issue an annual report since the Shuttle Columbia accident.  Further information on the panel and a copy of the report can be viewed here.

Of note, the panel issued its report in mid-January after the enactment of NASA’s new reauthorization act that included language describing the mandated new heavy lift rocket and crew capsule. Despite this language, many congressional hearings, and Administration statements about NASA’s future programs, the Advisory Panel asks:

“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.”

The report continues:

“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.”

The Advisory Panel found problems in other aspects of NASA’s redefined programs.  “Even for commercial transportation to LEO, we find uncertainty” the report states, with the panel’s concerns centering on acquisition strategy, oversight, safety standards, and liability. 

There is considerable discussion in the report about the need for NASA to move quickly to promulgate an acquisition strategy, spacecraft human rating requirements, structures for knowledge transfer, and the workforce and safety culture.  The report also discusses challenges to the International Space Station and dependency on the Russian Soyuz vehicle for crew transportation to the station.

While NASA will have prime responsibility for many of the issues raised by the panel, active participation by the Administration and the Congress will be required.  In concluding the report, the panel states:

“The ASAP believes that lack of clarity and constancy of purpose among NASA, Congress, and the White House is a key safety concern. Earlier this year, the President signed a NASA Authorization Bill that reoriented the Agency’s human spaceflight efforts; however, NASA’s future human exploration mission plans are uncertain. 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. Congress, the White House, and NASA must quickly reach a consensus position on the Agency’s future and our Nation’s future in space.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095