Safety Board: We’re Fraked on Human Spaceflight

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has issued its annual report for 2008, and it’s not a fun read. Not at all. Basically, it says that the U.S. is facing a long gap in human spaceflight and there’s not a whole lot anyone can do about it.

The panel’s basic conclusions are:

  • It’s too expensive and dangerous to fly the shuttle beyond 2010;
  • The shuttle’s replacement can’t be sped up very much;
  • The COTS program (SpaceX, Orbital Sciences) can’t fill the gap.

The relevant section of the report is below.

A. Proposed Extension of the Space Shuttle Program

To maximize safety, minimize wasted effort, and bolster employee morale, any further debate regarding the future of the Shuttle should be undertaken immediately and completed without further delay. From a safety standpoint, the ASAP strongly endorses the NASA position on not extending Shuttle operations beyond successful execution of the December 2008 manifest, completing the ISS. Continuing to fly the Shuttle not only would increase the risk to crews, but also could jeopardize the future U.S. Exploration program by squeezing available resources (and, in the worst case, support) for the Constellation program.

Extension of the Space Shuttle Program. Although continuing to fly the Shuttle would minimize the U.S. launch vehicle services gap (currently projected at 5 years) between Shuttle retirement and the beginning of Constellation flights, the ASAP does not favor this approach.

  • Shuttle support and manufacturing capabilities are dwindling and possibly not restorable.

– The contractor manufacturing base and third-tier suppliers are starting to shut down.
– The capability to manufacture and integrate specific long-lead items (e.g., the External Tank) will very soon be too degraded to restore efficiently, cost-effectively, and in a timely manner.
– Key personnel positions are slated for elimination in the first half of 2009.
– Supplier tiers and personnel skill mixes complicate retention of necessary infrastructure.

  • Continuing to fly the Shuttle requires reevaluation of crew and mission safety. Relatively high levels of inherent risk reside in the Shuttle design, and these risks rise as more flights are attempted. Indeed, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) recommended recertification of the Space Shuttle at the material, component, subsystem, and system levels if it flies beyond 2010.

With limited resources, funding an extension of the Shuttle program will constrain available resources for the Constellation program, merely postponing or shifting the gap while exposing NASA to the increased risk of Shuttle flights and deferring the Constellation program.

2. Acceleration of the Constellation Program. The ASAP is not convinced that the Ares I and Orion initial operating capability (IOC) date can be improved appreciably by additional resources.

  • NASA is developing a new system for the first time in years, so it needs sufficient time to identify and resolve problems and reiterate the process.
  • The Constellation program requires management resources and personnel (many now working on the Shuttle program, others not yet hired and trained).
  • The geographic dispersal of many involved organizations demands coordination and maturing of diverse programs (many with very long lead times) at the same time.
  • Ares I and Orion designs are still in development and cannot be anchored in verifiable data (e.g., on thrust oscillation, stack control in flight) until NASA tests the Ares I-X in summer 2009.

3. Private Sector. The ASAP concludes that the private sector cannot bridge the gap.

  • There is no evidence that Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) vehicles will be completed in time to minimize the gap.
  • COTS vehicles currently are not subject to the Human-Rating Requirements (HRR) standards and are not proven to be appropriate to transport NASA personnel.
  • The capability of COTS vehicles to safely dock with the ISS still must be demonstrated.