An animation of a Space Launch System rocket launch by NASA.
NASA’s safety oversight of a new exploration rocket and crew capsule lacks adequate independence and “diminishes lessons learned from the Columbia accident,” congressional watchdogs warned this week.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office said some key functions have potentially conflicting roles as the agency develops the Space Launch System rocket, Orion capsule and related ground systems for a first launch from Kennedy Space Center in late 2019.
The technical authorities responsible for monitoring engineering and safety concerns simultaneously hold positions that must help keep those programs on schedule and budget.
That puts them in the position of “grading their own homework,” the report says, and potentially makes them less likely to flag risks that would cost time or money to resolve.
“It can become a conflict of interest,” said Cristina Chaplain, author of the 51-page GAO report. “You’re under a lot of pressure to meet cost and schedule goals.”
That pressure was part of a “broken safety culture” that investigators found contributed to the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its seven-person crew during reentry in 2003.
Investigators recommended that technical authorities be kept independent from day-to-day program management to ensure engineers weren’t reluctant to raise safety concerns. The authorities are supposed to serve as checks and balances providing different points of view, so decisions aren’t made in isolation.
NASA only partially agreed with the GAO’s recommendation to change its approach, saying it had “carefully and thoughtfully” implemented lessons learned from Columbia.
The agency said the so-called “duel-hat” approach was working well, relied on having the “right” people in dual roles, and had a strong process in place for hearing dissenting opinions.
NASA promised to evaluate that approach over the next year as the different systems are integrated for a first, unmanned test flight called Exploration Mission-1.
An official from NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, another independent advisory body, “stated she had no concerns” with NASA’s current approach, the GAO said.
Previously the ASAP credited “well-qualified, strong personnel” for providing sound technical oversight, while warning of risks if those roles weakened or encountered new conflicts.
However, the GAO said that the former chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, retired Admiral Hal Gehman, believes NASA should insulate technical oversight from cost and schedule pressures even during the exploration systems’ development phase.
He added, according to this week’s report, that “NASA should never be lulled into dispensing of engineering and safety independence because human spaceflight is an extremely risky enterprise.”
Chaplain said NASA has sought to address the Columbia accident recommendations, but “our findings are they just probably don’t go far enough.”
“It all comes down to space being a very unforgiving environment,” she said. “This is very complex work, so you really have to take extra steps to separate these responsibilities.”
NASA estimates it will spend $9.7 billion to prepare the SLS rocket for a first flight, along with $2.8 billion on ground systems. Another $11.3 billion will be spent to ready Orion for a first crewed flight by 2023.
Those estimates don’t count billions more spent under the canceled Constellation program.
In its report, the GAO separately called NASA “shortsighted” for refusing to detail the costs of the second SLS mission and those that follow, and suggested Congress should require those estimates.
NASA has not provided “the transparency to assess long-term affordability,” which is crucial to winning support for plans to send astronauts to Mars, the report said.
NASA responded that it has “the processes in place to provide stakeholders insight to cost, schedule and risks” as it goes about expanding exploration capabilities over many missions.
Contact Dean at 321-242-3668 or firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow on Twitter at @flatoday_jdean and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/FlameTrench.
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