Late last week, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released its annual report on safety issues at NASA. As in recent years, one concern it highlighted in the report and accompanying cover letter is the level of funding for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). ASAP remains worried that shortfalls in funding appropriated for the program versus the administration’s request could jeopardize safety of the systems.
“While the budget request to appropriated funding ratio was slightly improved in 2013… the shortfall remains a top concern and the 2014 budget remains uncertain,” ASAP chairman Joseph Dyer wrote in the report’s cover letter, presumably composed before the 2014 omnibus spending bill was completed last Monday; that bill gave the program $696 million of the requested $821 million, a higher ratio than in past years. “This shortfall is seriously impacting acquisition strategy, and there is risk that force-fitting the CCP into a fixed-price contract with only the funds available has the potential to adversely impact safety.”
That shortfall, though, doesn’t mean ASAP is recommending NASA change course on commercial crew development. “The ASAP does not recommend suspending efforts to return the U.S. to a capability to launch humans into space, even in the face of budget or other real-world constraints that yield increased risk in pursuit of great reward,” Dyer writes. “However, we fundamentally believe that NASA should be plain-speaking and transparent with regard to risk acceptance and that risk and reward must be pursued in harmony and balance.”
In ASAP’s previous report, the advisory group expressed similar concerns about commercial crew funding, including a version of the same chart depicting the differences between requested and appropriated funding for the program. (The chart in the 2013 report did get some better formatting from the 2012 version, apparently lifted directly from a default Excel chart layout.) “In FY13, we predict this planning-funding disconnect will again drive a change to acquisition strategy, schedule, and/or safety risk,” Dyer said in the cover letter to the 2012 report. However, in 2013 NASA continued its strategy to shift to FAR-based contracts for the next phase, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap; it’s also maintained a schedule that has vehicles entering service in 2017, provided the program is fully funded. (Whether the $696 million appropriated for 2014, including $171 million withheld until NASA completes a cost-benefit analysis of ISS commercial crew transportation, is sufficient to maintain that schedule is unclear.) ASAP might consider the third prediction—safety risk—fulfilled, though, based on concerns in the 2013 report that “NASA is being perceived as sending a message that cost outranks safety” in the CCtCap request for proposals.
Unlike some recent ASAP reports, though, the panel took some time in the 2013 report to take a broader look at the question of safety in human spaceflight. “In the human space flight endeavor, the questions remain: How much risk is too much? How do we know if we’ve considered all the risks? Is perfection the goal or is ‘safe enough’ the objective?” asks the report. “It is unfortunate that we must use terms like ‘safe enough’ rather than ‘perfect,’ but we must also realize that there is no such thing as guaranteed mission success.” The ASAP report doesn’t attempt to determine what exactly is “safe enough,” noting that it “is not a classical scientific decision; rather, it is a policy decision.”
Of course, no mode of transportation is perfectly safe: people die every year doing everything from flying airplanes to riding bicycles. In this week’s issue of The Space Review, I contrast the ASAP report with a recent book, Safe Is Not an Option, by Rand Simberg. In the book, he makes the argument that the threshold of what’s considered “safe enough” has been set too high, limiting progress in space exploration; he attributes that in large part to the perception that spaceflight is not considered that important, and thus not worth a high degree of risk. As the ASAP report states, risk acceptance in government-funded human spaceflight boils down to a “policy decision”: what is it that you’re trying to achieve by sending humans to space, and how much risk are you willing to accept to achieve that goal?