NASA Safety Panel: Commercial Crew Program Making Progress But Challenges Remain

Credit: NASA

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Even as SpaceX prepares to make its first Crew Dragon flight test to the International Space Station (ISS) next month, challenges remain for certifying the vehicle to carry NASA astronauts, according to a new safety report.

In its annual report released last week, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) identified two inter-related safety concerns with SpaceX’s system: the redesign of helium composite overwrap pressure vessels (COPVs) used in the Falcon 9 rocket, and the company’s desire to load astronauts aboard Crew Dragon before fueling the booster.

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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.

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NASA Safety Panel: Significant Challenges Remain for SLS & Orion Programs

Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft on Pad 39B. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s plan to send astronauts back to the moon continues to make steady progress but faces significant challenges in manufacturing, flight control, software and other key areas as a crucial test of an abort system looms this spring, according to a new report released on Friday.

A section of the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel’s (ASAP) Annual Report examined progress with the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, Orion crew vehicle and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) programs. An uncrewed flight of SLS and Orion known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) is scheduled for next year.

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Commercial Crew Schedule Margins at Risk as Much Work Remains


by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s uninterrupted access to the International Space Station (ISS) could be at risk due to continued schedule slips by commercial crew providers Boeing and SpaceX, the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) said last week.

“Based on the quantity, significance, and associated uncertainty of work remaining for both commercial providers, the Panel believes there is a very real possibility of future schedule slips that could easily consume all remaining margin,” ASAP said in its annual report. [Full Report]

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House Space Subcommittee Hearing On Commercial Crew Status Scheduled


House Subcommittee on Space Hearing

An Update on NASA Commercial Crew Systems Development

Date: Wednesday, January 17, 2018 – 10:00am
Location: 2318 Rayburn House Office Building
Subcommittees: Subcommittee on Space (115th Congress)

Hearing Purpose

The purpose of the hearing is to examine the development of the NASA’s two  commercial crew systems, being built by Boeing and SpaceX, to service the International Space Station

Witnesses:

  • Mr. William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator, Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, NASA
  • Mr. John Mulholland, vice president and program manager, Commercial Programs, Boeing Space Exploration
  • Dr. Hans Koenigsmann, vice president, Build and Flight Reliability, SpaceX
  • Ms. Cristina Chaplain, director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management, U.S. Government Accountability Office
  • Dr. Patricia Sanders, chair, NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel

ASAP’s Report Card on NASA Safety

International Space Station (Credit: NASA)
International Space Station (Credit: NASA)

NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel
Annual Report for 2016
January 11, 2017
[Full Report – PDF]

Excerpts

Report Summary

Twelve topic areas, highlighted in this report, are summarized in the table below. They have been broken out to focus attention on individual topics that the Panel feels are worthy of note.

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ASAP Report Targets Concerns Over SpaceX Propellant Loading

Credit: USLaunchReport.com
Credit: USLaunchReport.com

A new NASA reports says that while Boeing and SpaceX are making progress on their commercial crew spacecraft, but a number of key technical challenges remain and there is “a very real possibility” of “a substantial slip in the schedule” in the already delayed programs.

In its 2016 Annual Report, NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) said it was concerned about SpaceX’s “load and go” approach of placing the load aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft prior to loading the Falcon 9 booster with propellants, particularly in the wake of the loss of a booster in September while it was being fueled.

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NASA Names New Chair for Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel

NASA LOGOWASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has named Patricia Sanders as chair of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), an advisory committee that reports to NASA and Congress on matters concerning the agency’s safety performance.

Sanders currently is an independent aerospace consultant. She served for 34 years in the federal government, retiring in 2008 as the executive director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). As the executive director, she was the senior civilian responsible for MDA’s management and operations, safety and quality control, strategic planning, legislative affairs, external communication and all issues related to worldwide personnel administration and development.

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ASAP Releases Annual Report on NASA Programs

NASA LOGOWASHINGTON (NASA PR) — The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), an advisory committee that reports to NASA and Congress, has issued its 2015 annual report examining NASA’s safety performance over the past year and highlighting accomplishments, issues and concerns to agency and government officials.

The report, released Wednesday, is based on the panel’s 2015 fact-finding and quarterly public meetings; “insight” visits and meetings; direct observations of NASA operations and decision-making processes; discussions with NASA management, employees and contractors; and the panel members’ own experience.

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ASAP: SLS/Orion Launch Cadence Poses Safety Risks

Space Launch System in flight. (Credit: NASA)
Space Launch System in flight. (Credit: NASA)

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) believes the projected low flight rates of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew vehicle will create significant safety challenges for the space agency. The independent safety group also raised questions about the safety of flying astronauts on the system in 2021.

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ASAP Says SpaceX, Orbital Need to Up Their Games on ISS Resupply

SpaceX Dragon freighter at ISS. (Credit: NASA)
SpaceX Dragon freighter at ISS. (Credit: NASA)

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation will now have to deliver the majority of supplies needed to maintain the U.S. segment of the International Space Station (ISS) given ESA’s decision to retire its ATV freighter and JAXA limiting HTV cargo ship flights to one per year, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) said in a report this week.

The increased responsibilities come amid a 16-month gap in Orbital Science’s Cygnus flights to the space station that resulted from the explosion of the company’s Antares rocket on Oct. 28. The loss puts much more pressure on SpaceX, which has an aggressive schedule of five Dragon resupply flights to the space station this year.

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NASA, Partners Work to Avoid Water Shortage on ISS

A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.
A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Following the loss of a Cygnus freighter when its Antares booster exploded after launch on Oct. 28, NASA officials emphasized the International Space Station (ISS) crew was in good shape on supplies, which could last into March without any other ships visiting the facility. As if on queue, a Russian Progress freighter blasted off for the station the following morning, which officials said demonstrated the wisdom of redundant supply systems.

All that was true enough. Behind the scenes, however, officials were concerned over one critical item aboard station: water. The suspension of Cygnus flights for at least a year threw a monkey wrench into NASA’s plan to use the cargo ship to resupply the station with H2O. It also left station astronauts dependent upon the success of a Japanese HTV freight set for launch only weeks before they would ran out of water on Sept. 2.

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ASAP Criticizes NASA Commercial Crew Program on Transparency

commercial_crew_cst100_dragon_iss

In its 2014 Annual Report, the NASA Aerospace Advisory Panel (ASAP) slammed the space agency for “less-than-candid and -transparent communication” over the multi-billion dollar Commercial Crew Program.

“There are certain areas where this exemplary behavior of candid, timely, and transparent communication of risk has been insufficient,” ASAP said in its report. “The Commercial Crew Program (CCP) has been notably less forthcoming. This lack of transparency has been a concern for a number of years and, despite numerous discussions with the Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development (DCSD) and with senior leadership at NASA Headquarters, this less-than-candid and -transparent communication with the ASAP regarding the CCP has persisted.

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ASAP Worried About Commercial Crew Funding, Acquisition Strategy

commercial_crew_funding_chart_mod
The commercial crew gap: the Obama Administration’s requested funding is in blue, with Congressional amount in red. (Credit: ASAP, FY 2014 budget data)

Sounding much like a broken record (or a buffering webcast, for those not only enough to LPs), NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) has once again identified Congressional miserliness as a major threat to the success of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

“While the budget request to appropriated funding ratio was slightly improved in 2013, as depicted in the figure below, the shortfall remains a top concern and the 2014 budget remains uncertain,” the panel said in its 2013 annual report. “This shortfall is seriously impacting acquisition strategy, and there is risk that force-fitting the CCP into a fixed-price contract with only the funds available has the potential to adversely impact safety.”

Well, what else is new?

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ASAP Identifies What NASA Got Right in COTS Program

Cygnus_CRS1_onarm
In its 2013 annual report, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) calls the COTS program “extremely successful,” noting the space agency and its partners, Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX, developed two new launch vehicles and cargo ships for less than the price of a single Space Shuttle flight.

The report provides a succinct synopsis of what NASA did right during the program:

It is important to point out that it was not simply the use of fixed-price Space Act Agreements that led to the Program’s success, although that helped to enable the successful outcome. Rather, NASA did a number of things right along the way, such as maintaining excellent program management, appointing well-qualified technical representatives to the PITs, providing the right amount of insight, requesting the right amount of information, and having the right number of Government attendees at industry meetings. Although the Government has much technical expertise to share, too much Government engagement can stifle industry innovation and/or significantly slow the “speed of decisions.” Finally, program flexibility made a substantial difference. One example of that was eliminating Rocketplane-Kistler as a partner when it failed to successfully complete program milestones and introducing Orbital Sciences Corporation to maintain competition for SpaceX. Another example was NASA’s willingness to combine SpaceX’s two demonstration missions into one when it became clear that all program objectives could be accomplished on a single flight.

“It would certainly not be appropriate for every Government program to use a COTS-type management philosophy, but we would encourage NASA (and other Government agencies) to consider adopting similar approaches where possible,” the report concludes.