How NASA Will Handle Commercial Cargo Accidents

NASA PR — With the upcoming SpaceX commercial cargo launch currently scheduled for April 30, it is important to understand the roles and responsibilities of the government and commercial partners with respect to mishaps that may occur during the test flights of these complex new capabilities under the commercial cargo Space Act Agreements (SAA).

For most missions undertaken by NASA, such as the Space Shuttle missions or NASA expendable launches, any launch or mission mishaps are investigated by NASA. However, SpaceX’s demonstration flight is a commercial launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the launch and entry will be licensed and regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). As such, SpaceX is ultimately responsible for public safety, with the FAA and Air Force Eastern Range responsible for ensuring SpaceX compliance with public safety requirements.

Depending on the nature of the incident, various organizations are responsible for conducting mishap investigations as shown in the examples listed below.

  • If a mishap happens on the launch pad, SpaceX and possibly the Air Force would investigate.
  • If a mishap happens during ascent or entry, the FAA will investigate with assistance from SpaceX. The National Transportation Safety Board may take the lead role in the investigation, depending on the nature of the mishap.
  • If a mishap happens on orbit, SpaceX will investigate.
  • If a mishap happens during International Space Station (ISS) Integrated Operations, the ISS Program will investigate.

NASA reserves discretionary authority to investigate mishaps that involve NASA personnel or resources regardless of location. However, other than mishaps involving NASA personnel or resources or during ISS operations, NASA is not responsible for conducting mishap investigations for the demonstration mission.

If the demonstration mission is successful, then SpaceX and NASA will have achieved a significant milestone; but, care and attention will have to be paid to every single subsequent flight, just as it is for all space missions. Conversely, if there is a failure or significant anomaly during the demonstration mission, then SpaceX and NASA will need to understand the cause of the failure, develop and implement corrective actions, and continue to make progress towards the next mission.