Late last week NASA released the annual report by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), highlighting the key safety-related issues the independent panel sees with the space agency’s programs. This year’s report highlights in particular NASA’s commercial crew efforts, worrying that a lack of funding and non-traditional contracting mechanisms could increase risks to crews that will fly on these vehicles.
“Of all of the topics reviewed by the ASAP this year, the one receiving the most time and attention was unquestionably the Commercial Crew Program (CCP),” ASAP noted in its report, calling attention to it also in cover letters that accompanied the report to the NASA Administrator, the Speaker of the House, and the President of the Senate. ASAP expressed concern about the use of Space Act Agreements, as it has in the past, although the panel agreed with NASA’s use of fixed-price contracts for the first phase of the certification process. However, ASAP argued that the second, and much larger, phase of the certification process should be done with more conventional cost-plus contracts than fixed-price ones, as “we believe both schedule and safety would be at risk in a fixed-price environment because of the relative inability to defer or apply resources to problem areas that will inevitably develop.”
A larger issue than contracting vehicles, though, was funding uncertainty for the commercial crew effort. The ASAP report noted that funding levels for the program in fiscal years 2011 and 2012 were approximately half of the administration’s original request, with an anticipation of a similar shortfall from the requested $850 million in FY2013. “Given NASA’s budget history, it is unlikely there will be additional funding,” the report stated. Instead, ASAP believes that the program will “make tradeoffs and changes to performance measures that would include accepting additional safety risk” with limited NASA insight that “could lead to unknowingly accepting substantial increases in risk to the safety of crews.” (The report acknowledged another option, simply stretching out schedules, but apparently didn’t consider it likely and didn’t explain why.)
ASAP seemed more sanguine about the larger Exploration Systems Development (ESD) effort, which includes the Space Launch System (SLS) launcher and Orion spacecraft. “ESD is a program with wide support,” the report stated. “Unlike CCP, ESD funding levels have remained relatively constant,” although acknowledging that flat budgets create challenges for development programs that typically have a “classic skewed bell curve” spending profile.
The report doesn’t note, though, that Orion and SLS funding are considerably below levels authorized in the agency’s 2010 authorization act: in FY2012, for example, NASA received approximately $1.2 billion for Orion and $1.5 billion for SLS, but was authorized to spend $1.4 billion for Orion and $2.65 billion for SLS. Unless one believes the authorization bill figures overestimate the costs of these systems, there’s potential schedule or other risks with their development, particularly with the SLS.