Adequate Funding an Important Factor in Spaceflight Safety
NASA’s dual human spaceflight initiatives, the Commercial Crew Program and an effort to develop a new human deep space exploration capability, are jeopardized by uncertainty over future budgets, according to the latest assessment from the agency’s independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.
The status of future budgets are “the elephant in the room,” according to the nine member panel led by Joseph Dyer, a retired U. S. Navy vice admiral and comprised of former astronauts, military personnel and safety experts.
“It is time for all stakeholders to reach a consensus on what the nation is attempting to accomplish in human spaceflight and then fund that effort adequately and consistently,” concludes the 44-page report delivered to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as well as the House and Senate leadership on Jan. 9.
“For several years, there has been a significant gap between what NASA is attempting to do and what it is funded to do. This funding-planning mismatch, and in particular the uncertainty about future funding stability, has the potential to introduce new risks above and beyond those previously inherent in space travel,” according to the report. “There appear to be few options available to NASA when the budget is reduced. These include stretching the schedule, reducing performance, and/or obtaining additional funding. Given NASA’s budget history, it is unlikely there will be additional funding.”
TheU. S.turned toRussiato transport NASA astronauts to the six-person International Space Station as NASA’s long running space shuttle program was retired in mid-2011. Under current planning, NASA is collaborating with theU. S.commercial space industry to establish at least two commercial human orbital transportation services by 2017. The three-year-old Commercial Crew Program, however, has received about half the funding needed to reach that objective.
Meanwhile, NASA is also developing the Orion/Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle, the Space Launch System and a ground support launch complex to start astronauts on future missions of deep space exploration. The White House has directed NASA to reach an asteroid with a human crew by 2025, a step in the eventual exploration of Mars.
The panel raised two broad issues, it pledged to monitor closely.
One was a reliance on commercial astronauts for test flights of new private spacecraft developed to transport NASA astronauts to the space station and later paying passengers on missions to other orbital destinations.
The second was NASA’s strategy to act as system integrator for the Orion, SLS and ground systems, which the ASAP believes will weaken a system of engineering checks and balances to lower risk. NASA’s Washington headquarters, which currently serves as the integrator, is assigning some responsibilities to its field centers — based on their engineering expertise. Responsibility for development activities considered “low risk” will fall to the contractors themselves.
The ASAP was chartered by Congress, following the 1967 Apollo 1 launch pad fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts.