Friday, January 15, 2016

What, Me Worry?


The Swedish cover for the November 1969 issue of Mad Magazine.

NASASpaceflight.com posted an article January 12 detailing anonymous reports about this week's all-hands meeting for NASA civil servants at Kennedy Space Center.

Although these reports were second-hand and anonymous, if true the comments suggest that NASA's sclerotic bureaucracy still feels no urgency to fly Space Launch System on a crewed mission any time soon.

I wrote in September 2014 that NASA executives hesitated to commit to any reliable date for Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first uncrewed test flight with the Orion capsule. Although publicly NASA says it will launch by the end of 2018, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in public comments last year suggested it would slip at least in 2019. During the September media event, the executives said that EM-2, the first crewed test flight, would be somewhere in the 2021-2023 range.

According to the NASASpaceflight.com report, the 2023 date may no longer be reliable.

The report states that SLS management is contemplating a redefinition of EM-2 to be the first uncrewed test flight of a new upper stage, called the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS). According to NASASpaceflight.com writer Chris Bergin:

More recently, NASA made no secret of its wish to move to the EUS as soon as possible. During the KSC meeting, managers noted that move is now targeting the second flight of SLS.

That results in another problem, where that second flight won’t be able to launch a crew, as the new EUS would require a validation flight before crew are allowed to fly with it due to safety considerations ...

The KSC meeting appeared to confirm this requirement, claiming the second flight would now be a cargo mission, before claiming they hope it will involve launching the spacecraft planned to investigate Europa. However, that mission is still in the very early stages of evaluation, with SLS yet to be confirmed as the launch vehicle of choice.

While the plan to move to the EUS by the second flight will benefit SLS in the long run, it would result in the first crewed mission moving to at least the third flight of SLS.

That mission would likely become the repeat of EM-1, with a crew, prior to the fourth flight becoming the mission to send a crew to investigate a captured asteroid.

The article states that NASA management at the meeting blamed funding constraints, which is a bit ridiculous considering SLS receives about $3 billion a year from Congress. One can only imagine how much SpaceX or Blue Origin or other NewSpace companies could accomplish in a year with $3 billion.

Funding constraints was one factor mentioned in the 2015 Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel report released on January 13. The Panel was created in 1968 after the Apollo 1 fire. The group evaluates NASA’s safety performance and advises the agency on ways to improve. After the Columbia accident in 2003, Congress mandated that ASAP submit an annual report to the NASA administrator and to Congress. ASAP's findings are advisory and impose no mandate on the agency or Congress.


The history of Congress underfunding commercial crew. Click the chart to view at a larger resolution. Image source: Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

In a section titled “Funding Adequacy and Profiles,” the 2015 report states:

As we noted in our 2014 Annual Report and continue to assert this year, NASA’s budget is insufficient to deliver all current undertakings with acceptable programmatic risk. Programmatic risk can lead to tradeoffs that are inconsistent with good safety practice. Historically, most successful programs have reflected a bias towards robust, early funding to support critical design and system decisions. Both the amount of resources available and the time distribution of when the funds become available are issues for Exploration Systems Development (ESD) as well as the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Accompanying charts show that Congress each year underfunded commercial crew below what the Obama administration requested. This resulted in extending U.S. reliance on Russia for International Space Station crew rotations through 2017.


The history of Congress funding Space Launch System and the Orion capsule. Click the chart to view at a larger resolution. Image source: Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

It's a different story for SLS and Orion, lumped together into Exploration Systems Development. The Senate Launch System, as it's called by critics, receives generous funding from the elected officials who represent states and districts working on the program. In late December 2015, Congress gave SLS $700 million more in Fiscal Year 2016 than the Obama administration requested.

But SLS management still claims it's not enough, if the NASASpaceflight.com article is accurate.

The ASAP report states:

ESD has been resourced at a greater level than the President’s Budget Request by an average of 10.5 percent during FY 2012 through FY 2015. However, the funding profile has been essentially flat. This distribution of resources reflects one more typically observed in “level-of-effort” programs rather than a budget constructed to achieve the needed design efforts of a major program’s discrete and integrated requirements. In addition, funding is appropriated for individual elements rather than the program as a whole, which limits NASA’s ability to more efficiently allocate resources to prudently address issues. As noted in the conclusion section of the ASAP’s 2014 Annual Report, NASA’s response has been to embrace “…a strategy of ‘capabilities-based’ investments. This strategy develops and matures many of the new technologies and methodologies required for the future but does not deliver an integrated capability. While this is an understandable pragmatic response to insufficient funding, this approach costs more and can negatively impact overall performance and safety in the long run.” Careful attention and considerable program management skill will be required to ensure the resulting “Journey to Mars” system achieves the optimum balance between risk and reward.

In the next section titled “Accretion of Risk is Impacting Safety,” the panel writes of a “disquiet” with ESD safety.

  • The test program for components of Exploration Systems Development (ESD) appears to have gradually eroded since 2010. Among the multiple changes that have diminished the testing rigor are the decisions to reduce the scope of the Ascent Abort 2 (AA2) test and to delete pyrotechnic (pyro) shock/separation testing at the integrated system level.
  • Late changes are being made to the Orion heat shield design with only one opportunity (Exploration Mission-1) to flight test the new design prior to the first crewed mission.
  • Exploration Mission (EM)-2 is scheduled as the first crewed flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the first flight of the Orion environmental control and life support system ECLSS). This system will not have had an end-to-end flight test to build confidence that it will function safely during a cislunar mission where return to Earth could require up to as much as 11 days. This plan appears to incur an increased risk without a clearly articulated rationale.
  • The SLS infrequent flight rate leads to higher risk due to mission operations team personnel loss and fading memories of lessons learned. EM-1 is scheduled to launch in mid-2018, and EM-2 is scheduled for launch between 2021 and 2023. NASA has told the ASAP that the intent is to launch once per year subsequent to EM-2, but the demand and schedule are vague.
  • There has been growth over time in the maximum acceptable Loss of Crew (LOC) probabilities. This was discussed in the ASAP’s 2014 Annual Report.

The report also cites Commercial Crew Program concerns:

  • While much of the accretion of risk we have seen is in ESD, the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is subject to budget and schedule pressures that could lead to similar incremental risk acceptance decisions. As an artifact of the transition from Space Act Agreements to the Commercial Crew contractual arrangements, hazard reporting is behind for the CCP. There is a lack of design maturity at Critical Design Review (CDR); therefore, design is going forward without the benefit of the completed hazard analyses.
  • Additionally, in the CCP, the lack of formality or “paperwork” aspects of design decisions and changes is a concern. There is danger that this will lead to an undesirable and unplanned or unrecognized increase in risk acceptance as schedule and budget pressures mount.

The panel states on Page 7:

... [T]he ASAP remains convinced that a primary contributing factor to our perceived accretion of risk is continued lack of clear, transparent, and definitive formal risk acceptance and accountability.

The report continues on Page 8:

The ASAP believes that significant decisions need to be made by an individual who clearly and publicly accepts responsibility for the decision and the results it produces. When a person in an executive position is required to take accountability for risk acceptance, positive things happen. There is a higher-level review of other options and resources, outside of the program manager’s control, that can sometimes be redirected to “buy down” the risk. Risk acceptance is clearly a significant decision; the ASAP is disappointed that NASA has not recognized this and undertaken the timely resolution of our recommendation, which has been standing since January 2014. We are concerned that the continued lack of clear responsibility for assumption of risk is a substantial contributor to the currently observed risk accretion.

In my opinion ... No one will accept responsibility because there is no consequence if Space Launch System and Orion run behind schedule. Members of Congress representing Florida, Alabama and Texas assure that funding will continue to flow regardless of performance. Because NASA employees are civil servants, no jobs will be lost.

The NASASpaceflight.com article notes that the average age of a NASA civil servant is almost 50 years old. Why rock the boat so close to retirement?

“What, Me Worry?” has been Alfred E. Neuman's catch phrase on the cover of Mad Magazine since 1955. It could apply today to the NASA bureaucracy. Who cares if it ever launches, or the billions of dollars spent. Jobs are protected — which is what Congress told us was the program's purpose when the SLS design was unveiled in September 2011. The design was unveiled not by NASA, but by members of Congress. Another example of how our political system has gone Mad.

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