Yesterday, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), an advisory committee that analyzes NASA's safety performance, released its annual report for 2015. And man, does it not look good for the space agency. Overall, the report paints a pretty grim picture of NASA's safety protocols, claiming that tight funding and intense scheduling pressures are leading to an "accretion of risk" that no one at NASA seems to be talking about. This risk could potentially put human lives in danger during future space missions — much more so than usual.
The report paints a pretty grim picture of NASA's safety protocols
It's not all bad though. The document does compliment NASA on some safety improvements that were made last year, mostly in regards to the Commercial Crew program — the initiative to send astronauts to the International Space Station on privately owned and operated spacecraft. But mostly the document lists a number of concerns, in lengthy detail, that the panel thinks could jeopardize astronaut safety. For instance, the desire to launch NASA's newest rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), as soon as possible is causing employees to overlook or miss details that could lead to failures, the report claims. And while funding has increased slightly, it's not enough to help NASA meet its intense deadlines as safely as possible.
The text of the report is pretty convoluted, as most government-related documents are. But throughout the memo, there are some hidden spectacular burns, written in that formalized way of speaking that only government committees seem to use. You can read the document in its entirety here, and then check out my favorite ASAP slams below:
-- "NASA’s internal direction to the programs is to work to a 2021 EM-2 launch date, which has a schedule confidence level close to zero at requested funding levels."
-- The funding profile has been essentially flat. This distribution of resources reflects one more typically observed in "level-of-effort" programs rather than a budget constructed to achieve the needed design efforts of a major program’s discrete and integrated requirements.
-- "The ASAP observed another tendency or trend in working with the commercial providers... The providers were doing the "right thing" from engineering and safety standpoints, [but] the formality or 'paperwork' aspects were frequently missing or perfunctorily accomplished."
-- "While the programs appear to recognize and accept risk growth in many individual situations, we are not convinced that NASA recognizes or clearly communicates the aggregated impact of individually accepted component risks."
--"We are concerned that the continued lack of clear responsibility for assumption of risk is a substantial contributor to the currently observed risk accretion."
-- "The ASAP believes that a well-designed mission, with anticipated rewards that are expected to outweigh the risks, would go a long way toward gaining the needed support from future administrations, the Congress, and the general public. If not, then perhaps NASA should be working on a different mission, or at least using a different approach for the current mission.
So, in summary: ASAP thinks NASA needs to think about its safety procedures way more, or maybe it should rethink what it's doing. And as always, the agency could use a lot more money.
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