NASA Safety Panel Pushes Back Against Commercial Crew “Paperwork” Complaints

Crew Dragon for DM-1 mission with Falcon 9 booster. (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In its annual report issued last week, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) pushed back against complaints that the space agency has bogged down the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) with unnecessary bureaucratic paperwork.

“It should be recognized by all parties, both internal and external to NASA, that the certification process is not merely a ‘paperwork’ process; it involves considerable detailed technical activity by both NASA and the partners,” ASAP said.

“It is the completion of NASA’s technical certification of the design, combined with a mission-specific flight readiness review, that assures the crew will fly on an adequately risk-managed spacecraft,” the report added.

The document goes on to describe the certification process that NASA is using for Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which are each scheduled to fly uncrewed and crewed flight tests to the International Space Station (ISS) this year.

The comprehensive certification process includes the submission of test data, measurements and analysis by the companies to NASA for review and validation, the report stated. In some cases, NASA employees witness tests or conduct physical inspections of hardware.

ASAP said the process is more limited than the ones NASA has used for previous crewed vehicles.. The space agency was much more involved with design and development in the past, giving it more control over the process and insight into the vehicles.

The commercial crew process is “limited to accepting the vehicles for use by NASA astronauts on a specific mission profile rather than a general safety certification process typically used by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for aircraft.

“Unlike previous human-capable spacecraft developed for NASA missions (ISS, Shuttle, Apollo, etc.), NASA does not own or control the commercial crew vehicle designs,” the report stated.

The certification process is required for the space agency to understand system designs, operational margins and operational envelopes for Crew Dragon and Starliner, the report added.

“While NASA has some experience with qualifying vehicles in this manner, having used a similar process with Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles for high value payloads as well as its experience with the Commercial Cargo Program, the CCP will for the first time be certifying commercially developed vehicles for human space flight,” ASAP said.

“The Panel again wants to emphasize the importance of a strong, robust certification process that will ensure that data submitted to validate the design meets the stated requirement with the expected margins and that the hardware delivered reflects that design,” the report added.

ASAP said the space agency needs a clear set of guidelines for proceeding when a certification condition is inadequate. “What defines ‘inadequate’ needs to be specified and communicated to the workforce,” the report said.

The panel also made two recommendations to NASA concerning commercial crew.

Required Actions for Crewed Flight Test Risk Reduction: NASA should confirm and then clearly communicate the required content and configuration for the upcoming CCP test flights-Demo-1 and Orbital Flight Test (OFT)-specifically, those items that must be successfully demonstrated prior to the first crewed flights.

Action to Ensure U.S. Access to the International Space Station Given Commercial Crew Program Schedule Risk: Due to the potential for delays in the schedule for the first Commercial Crew Program (CCP) flights with crew, senior NASA leadership should work with the Administration and the Congress to guarantee continuing access to ISS for U.S. crew members until such time that U.S. capability to deliver crew to ISS is established.

NASA had not responded to either recommendation by the time the annual report was printed.

The last American astronaut to fly to the space station is set to return to Earth in January 2020. NASA needs to have at least one of the providers up and running by then to avoid a gap in U.S. occupants on the orbiting facility.

NASA is planning to have Boeing’s second flight test, which will include crew aboard Starliner for the first time, become a long-duration mission to the station. That plan depends upon both the uncrewed and crew flights not experience serious failures.

The current planning dates for commercial crew flight tests to ISS are:

  • SpaceX Demo-1 (uncrewed): March 2, 2019
  • Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): NET April 2019
  • Boeing Pad Abort Test: NET May 2019
  • SpaceX In-Flight Abort Test: June 2019
  • SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): July 2019
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): NET August 2019

The schedules for both vehicles have been slipping for years. Additional delays are possible.

Each vehicle and its launcher will need to be certified to carry astronauts on a commercial basis after the crewed flight test. That process is expected to take several months as NASA and the providers comb through data and make any required changes to their systems.