NASA’s political and corrupt safety panel


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After spending the last few years complaining about certain specific issues with the manned capsule efforts of SpaceX and Boeing, NASA’s safety panel this past weekend released its annual 2018 report. (You can download the report here [pdf].) Its position now on those certain specific issues can now be summarized as follows:

They make no mention of the parachute issues that forced Boeing to do numerous extra tests, causing probably a year delay in the program, though Boeing has had decades of experience with capsule parachutes and the entire American aerospace industry has never had a parachute failure.

The panel also admits that their concerns about SpaceX’s rocket fueling procedures is really not an issue.

The NESC [NASA Engineering and Safety Center] has independently studied the load and go procedure and provided a thorough report that identifies the hazards and available controls. Based on the NESC report, the CCP [Commercial Crew Program] has decided that the load and go concept is viable if subsequent analysis is adequate and if verifiable controls are identified and implemented for all the credible hazard causes that could potentially result in an emergency situation or worse.

As Emily Litela said, “Never mind!” Their concerns were never credible, as it really doesn’t matter if you fuel the rocket before or after the astronauts board, because in either case they are there when a lot of fuel is present. All the panel did was delay the first Dragon launch by at least a year by pushing this issue.

The panel is still holding onto its concerns about the installation blankets (COPV) used in SpaceX’s internal helium tanks, the location of the problem that caused the September 2016 launchpad explosion. Despite SpaceX’s apparent fixing of this problem, with 40 successful launches since that failure, they are listing further vague requirements:

[W]e believe that the team has yet to arrive at a clear definition of the risk posture or mitigation strategies related to operations with the redesigned COPV. The testing is continuing, and we will follow the results as they develop. It is imperative that the Program understands the potential hazards, the controls of those hazards, and the margins involved, and also ensures that the operating environment stays within those margins if the redesigned COPV tanks are to be implemented for crewed flights.

Essentially, the panel’s requirements here gives it the right to delay things indefinitely but with enough wiggle room so that they can say “never mind” again when the political pressure to stop delaying finally gets too hot.

Earlier the panel had demanded that SpaceX fly the rocket design it will use for the manned flights, called Block 5, seven times before the panel will okay a manned flight. SpaceX has been proceeding through these launches, without problems. The wording above is vague enough that it could permit the panel to expand these demands, should it decide it wishes to.

Meanwhile, the panel’s review of NASA SLS/Orion program lists numerous problems that are far more serious and fundamental. It also contains at least one outright lie, stating the following in reference to the 2014 unmanned Orion test flight:

Exploration Flight Test-1 returned data that resulted in a completely different approach to the design and manufacture of the capsule heat shield.

To repeat for emphasis, this is a lie. NASA had already decided, before the 2014 flight, to dump the heat shield it used on this test and replace it with a different design. The flight really accomplished only one thing: Give NASA and SLS/Orion some badly needed positive press exposure.

Other issues for SLS/Orion include the possibility that the first unmanned test will fly without the ability to gather data about its systems. NASA has apparently decided that should an avionics box fail once the rocket has reached the launchpad, they will not roll things back to the assembly building to replace it because that will involve too much delay. Instead, they will do the launch without, even though this will prevent them from gathering data on the success or failure of the newly designed heat shield.

Since the whole point of a test flight is to gather data about such systems, the test flight could thus turn out to be entirely pointless.

The safety panel however does not appear to be demanding that NASA delay the test launch to make sure the box is working. Instead, its “position is that NASA should aggressively research alternate means to collect the data onboard if the avionics box fails.” This vague position sounds like they are giving NASA wiggle-room to go ahead despite the problem.

Regardless, I consider this safety panel very compromised and a problem for NASA and the United States. Its bureaucratic approach to exploration — by nature a risky endeavor — makes space exploration by the United States difficult if not impossible.

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7 comments

  • I would say that this is a case of the good as enemy of the best, if ‘good’ is defined as something that moves the process toward a goal, but this is really an illustration of incompetence at war with competence. The mediocre can’t stand to be bested, especially if their worldview is that they *are* the best, however unrealistic that may be, and an outlook that has been fostered over decades of ‘self-esteem’ indoctrination.

    Political processes and bureaucracies are necessary in human society; it’s how large organizations, necessary for large undertakings, get stuff done. The danger is decadence, when the process becomes the goal. And that’s what we have at NASA, and Western society in general. Based on the Pareto Rule (and my own experience), a small number of people have a clear vision and an idea how to achieve it, while everyone else seeks recursive machinations that consume lots of resources, but don’t advance the process. Their hope is they can milk the organization long enough to retire, and hope that happens before the entire system collapses.

  • Mike Borgelt

    Get them NASA people away from that rocket and shoot it!

  • Edward

    The Original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” were the best. The show had celebrity hosts and musical acts I heard of and loved.

    Today, SNL is a waste of time and money.

    Lorne Michaels has let SNL crater and is doing the same on the Late Night shows under his control. I miss Johnny Carson and David Letterman (when he was on NBC – CBS destroyed Letterman).

  • Edward_2

    Ooops. The above should have been by “Edward_2”.

  • wodun

    NASA has apparently decided that should an avionics box fail once the rocket has reached the launchpad, they will not roll things back to the assembly building to replace it because that will involve too much delay.

    I’m dying.

    Too long of a delay?

  • Edward

    (The real Edward, this time)
    wodun,
    Re: “Other issues for SLS/Orion include the possibility that the first unmanned test will fly without the ability to gather data about its systems. NASA has apparently decided that should an avionics box fail once the rocket has reached the launchpad, they will not roll things back to the assembly building to replace it because that will involve too much delay. … NASA should aggressively research alternate means to collect the data onboard if the avionics box fails.

    After years and years of delays, another delay of a few days in order to repair equipment that monitors the parts of the test that are the entire purpose of the test would be just too much. Suddenly, doing it right is less important than doing it on time.

    Why do a test right when you can do it on time by using proxy data to guess at the necessary data? It isn’t as though this was a manned program and actual human lives will rely upon these tests. When I was verifying spacecraft, we had several possible methods, but this “by guess and by gosh” method is new to me. Fortunately, this is the safety panel that is suggesting this method, so it must be safe for future crews. Right?

    I’m sure that ASAP would be more than willing to do the same for Boeing and SpaceX with their tests, right?

  • Dick Eagleson

    Excellent summary of the career hanky-twisters at ASAP.

    Minor quibble: the carbon fiber wrappings on the F9’s COPV helium bottles are not there for insulation but to add burst-resistance strength.

    Finally, an observation about the risks of SpaceX’s load-and-go propellant loading procedure done with astronauts aboard and its risks compared to the “tried and true” NASA way of propellant loading first, then putting the crew in. In SpaceX’s approach, the crew are inside and sealed up in a capsule that has escape rockets that will fire and pull the crew away in the event of any booster misadventure before propellant loading ever starts. The only people at risk – and not at much risk – are the crew and they are all steely-eyed missile men who signed up for a risky job. NASA’s way requires extended unprotected presence of both crew and support personnel atop what is essentially a giant potential bomb. Until the crew are completely sealed inside, they aren’t safe. Until the pad closeout crew is off the tower and well away from the pad, they aren’t safe either. If I was a closeout pad worker, I’d be a lot happier to be working on a Falcon 9 than on an Atlas 5.

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