NASA’s warped measure of safety


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In posting an invitation to social media users to attend the launch of the first unmanned test flight of SpaceX’s man-rated Dragon capsule on January 17, 2019, NASA’s public relations department added the following warning:

NASA has a series of reviews before the uncrewed test flight, and the outcome of these reviews, including the Flight Readiness Review, will ultimately determine the Demo-1 launch date.

For months I have reported numerous examples of NASA’s safety panel acting to create fake problems that will force a delay in this launch. First it was the fueling method. Then it was the insulation on the helium tanks. Then there was the need for SpaceX to fill out all the paperwork. Now it is the parachute system and worries about the safety culture at SpaceX.

I might take these concerns seriously, except that NASA’s safety panel seems to be so sanguine about far more serious safety issues with NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion capsule. This double standard is starkly illustrated once again in this NASASpaceflight.com article about NASA’s plans for the very first manned Orion/SLS mission.

On that manned mission, NASA will fly a host of new equipment for the first time. For example, the capsule’s “Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), crew displays, and other crew systems will be making their debut in Orion.” Anything else that has flown previously will essentially have done so only once, during the first unmanned test flight of SLS/Orion.

It gets worse. While NASA has demanded SpaceX fly the final manned version of its Falcon 9 rocket seven times before it will allow its astronauts on board, the agency plans to launch humans on SLS on only its second launch. More astonishing, that second launch will include a mission taking those astronauts on a loop around the Moon.

During the Apollo missions in the 1960s, NASA had a policy that no mission would head to the Moon without carrying a lunar module (LM). The logic was that the LM would act as a lifeboat should something go wrong with the Apollo capsule, a logic that was actually proven during Apollo 13.

NASA did send Apollo 8 to the Moon without the LM, but it did so in the context of a Cold War space race and an end-of-the-decade commitment by an assassinated president. The agency then knew the risks were high, but it decided the situation justified those risks.

NASA is not faced with a Cold War space race today. Instead, it has a grossly over-budget and long delayed boondoggle called SLS/Orion, increasingly embarrassed by the quick and efficient achievements of private space companies. In a desperate effort to keep that boondoggle alive, the agency is apparently pushing it to fly it too soon and with inadequate development. In fact, it appears to me that the safety culture at NASA that caused both shuttle accidents (a desire to favor frequent launches while ignoring safety analysis) has returned at NASA, and it has done so with a vengeance.

Meanwhile, the contrast with how the agency’s safety panel treats SpaceX versus SLS/Orion demonstrates how corrupt and unreliable that safety panel has become. They no longer really work to reduce risk. Their goal appears to promote government-built rocket systems over those manufactured by the private sector.

Hat tip to Kirk Hilliard for pointing out the language in the NASA pr invite to the SpaceX launch.

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10 comments

  • AUDERY CARR.

    When the paperwork equals the weight of the Machine, then can you go flying.

  • Audery Carr N502DD

    I was taught this in the 1980.s

  • fred k

    It will be interesting to see if the arbitrary review language shows up in the announcement for the Boeing starliner.

    Up to this point, I wouldn’t describe the issue from the ASAP panel as fake … they just seemed to be arbitrary and fairly vague. Example. Risk of getting hit by debris in space. We know that the risk is very low, but not zero, We also know that staying up longer result in larger cumulative risk (which is still a small number). ASAP is forcing changes to the crew capsules based upon the cumulative risk while being parked at the station.

    That’s dumb, because the capsule isn’t risky when the astros are on station. Also, the risk can be thought to be zero’d out, because there are at least two easy, good backup scenarios (stay on station; launch another capsule).

    Bottom line is that the ASAP panel has no downside to overplay every risk. It has no upside to flying early, flying on time, or flying at all. The only downside if might have is to analyze a risk, and yet have that risk eventually result in a bad day. Consequently they are only going to make it harder to fly. Note that this is not the same as making it safer.

  • Phill O

    Politicking often is more related to the “Dog in a Manger” not known by today’s youth.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “In a desperate effort to keep that boondoggle alive, the agency is apparently pushing it to fly it too soon and with inadequate development.

    Let’s assume that it is not a boondoggle [sorry, I make myself laugh to tears — SLS not a boondoggle, hah!]. In this (unimaginable) non-boondoggle scenario, SLS costs so much and launches so rarely that treating it like Apollo is hardly an option. Rather than play it safe (isn’t there an ASAP safety panel that makes sure they play it safe?) by performing a checkout flight in low Earth orbit (LEO) and then flying to lunar orbit with a lifeboat in a safety conscious way, the more affordable and more productive move is to combine multiple test missions into a single riskier mission.

    Can you imagine spending a couple of billion dollars just to checkout a spacecraft in LEO with nothing to show for all that money? Then taking another couple of years and another couple of billion dollars just to do a lunar flyby, again with virtually nothing to show for it? Apollo would have been a terrible failure under such a scenario. Even after all this, there is no goal for Orion-SLS to achieve, except to merely exist. Any missions being planned beyond EM-2 are only to service the other NASA boondoggle: (F)LOP-Gateway-To-Nowhere. To paraphrase Dante: Abandon all hope, ye who enter Gateway.

    And this is why I have to laugh so hard: such a scenario is the very definition of a boondoggle.

  • Wodun

    They dont really have a choice as there are a limited supply of engines and are directed by congress. The money is largely irrelevant because NASA isnt a business and cant operate like one.

    Look at the requirements for commercial crew as what NASA would like to do themselves but are incapable of. For SpaceX and Boeing, their launchers fly regularly so the requirement isnt much of a burden.

    Its a double standard but one that NASA can only meet through proxy. From a commercial point of view, the delay matters but not much because there is no where for customers to go. Also, a NASA seal of approval is a great marketing feature for the people wealthy enough afford a ticket.

  • Jason

    Lets hope nobody gets killed because of this poor attitude at NASA; we’ve lost far too many already.

  • wodun

    It isn’t an attitude but rather a set of circumstances forced on them by congress and the reality of government vs markets.

    While it is possible for government to own the means of production and attempt to function in the market, we can look at Russia, Europe, and even the USA for how well that works over the long term. Two major problems are the market forces that send information to decision makers are distorted, leading to bad decisions, and the primary customer is the government so that is the only customer whose approval matters.

    SpaceX was able to do constant iterations on their design because they didn’t just have a high launch rate but also because those launches funded development and testing. NASA can’t replicate that but they can take advantage of the benefits of the free market to get what they want without having to pay for it in total. There is a mixture of shenanigans and bureaucratic sloth at play here but the end product will be something better than what NASA can/could produce.

    It does illustrate a huge drawback under all of the proposed plans from space nerds like Zubrin, Musk, Bezos, and NASA. Under all of these scenarios, the government is the anchor customer and will be meddling in the market for good or ill. It wont be until products exist where government is either not a customer or a minor player where commerce will truly flourish but all of the proposals for lunar/Mars bases/villages involve either the United States government or an international coalition of governments to run things.

    Expanding into cislunar space is promising. More nodes means more chances for commerce and innovation. It looks like a lot hinges on private space stations and then replicating them in other environments. Our government and the international community wont be so willing to give up their dominance on the moon or Mars and sadly, many companies will go along with them.

  • Edward

    wodun wrote: “It wont be until products exist where government is either not a customer or a minor player where commerce will truly flourish

    I think a good example of this is commercial communication satellites. As soon as companies, not governments, were putting up these satellites, the advantages and profit potential were immediately seen. Improvements and innovations happened rapidly and that industry flourished.

    We are now seeing rapid improvements and innovations in Earth observation satellites, now that this has become a commercial industry. SpaceX improved cargo transportation to space stations by making a returnable unmanned spacecraft.

    As for safety, my expectation is that commercial space will perform similarly to commercial airlines in working very hard to reduce the number of fatal accidents. About a third of a century ago, the U.S. airlines realized that if they kept having accidents at the rate they were then there would soon be a headline each week about a major accident. They took safety very seriously and worked hard to reduce accidents. It took them a couple of decades to improve safety to where the major airlines had a whole decade of no fatal accidents. Learning to operate safely in space will likely be as difficult as learning to operate safely in the air, but hopefully we have learned a lot more about the learning process so that it will not take a century and thousands of lives to become relatively accident free.

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