ASAP insist on NASA certification amid praise for SpaceX success

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) have written to Administrator Charles Bolden with their latest overview from their recent quarterly meeting, praising the success of SpaceX’s C2+ mission with Dragon, before noting “a few successes” should not detract from pushing commercial companies through NASA’s strict certification requirements for upcoming crewed missions.

ASAP:

Vice Admiral Joseph W. Dyer, USN (Ret.), Chairman of the ASAP once again led the meeting, conducted in May, before the minutes were sent in a letter to General Bolden in mid-June.

The meeting was conducted at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), with Admiral Dyer noting his “great respect for the Center and the workforce, and the progress with the Space Launch System (SLS) is but one example of why that respect is well placed.”

At the time of the meeting, the media was all abuzz with SpaceX’s success with their Dragon spacecraft, as it successfully concluded its C2+ mission objectives via its debut trip to the International Space Station (ISS). Admiral Dyer opted to rightly praise the Californian company in his opening remarks.

“The ASAP recognized the successful launch of the SpaceX Dragon capsule and its rendezvous with the ISS, and conveys the Panel’s compliments to both SpaceX and NASA for achievement of this important milestone,” noted the Admiral.

“Progress in other areas includes significant advancements in the management of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program. Important aspects that have been discussed by this Panel are showing progress: cost estimation, budgeting, and planning; advancement in success criteria and certification; and development of acquisition options.”

One ASAP member also noted an “attaboy” to MSFC, in relation to Dragon’s success. The rather loose association was made due to “Dragon being launched on a Falcon 9 rocket, which is powered by nine Merlin engines, engines have a heritage traceable to the MSFC Fastrac engine design.”

The ASAP are a naturally cautious body, not least due to the word “safety” in its title.

The panel members were notably vocal in its opposition to any form of additional Space Shuttle flights in the post Augustine Commission hearings, to the point they appeared to insult the documented progress made via the huge safety improvements that were successfully implemented since Return To Flight (RTF) – even claiming Shuttle had become “more risky”.

(Animation created from some of the 114 hi res photos (all available in L2) taken by Mike Fossum on the ISS)

The remarks lead to a swift rebuttal by Space Shuttle Manager (SSP) John Shannon, in comments made to the entire shuttle team, cited in the Shuttle Standup/Integration report published shortly after the hearing.

“There were some disturbing remarks from the head of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP). We are working to understand these concerns from a Shuttle risk standpoint,” Mr Shannon noted. “We are flying safer now, and have a better safety culture and integrated team approach with many checks and balances to ensure that we are flying as safely as absolutely possible.”

Mr Shannon was proven to be correct, as the addition of STS-135 was approved to the manifest, along with each flight since the remarks showing an actual increase in safety, based on key documented parameters, such as the clear trend in the reduction of damage observed on the orbiter’s Thermal Protection System (TPS) during the run of final flights. The Panel also rejected a late call to cancel the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

NASA’s relationship with commercial companies was also the target of ASAP, with a 2011 meeting recommending that NASA personnel embedded at commercial companies should be rotated, in order to avoid them “going native”, which they fear threatens rule bending as the working relationship becomes closer over time.

“Rationale: History has shown that buyer representatives embedded with supplier development teams are subject to “bending the rules” to aid the development team that they begin to feel part of,” noted the meeting notes from their September meeting. “Preplanned rotation is one means of minimizing this effect.”

It is not clear if NASA managers implemented the recommendation.

Although the ASAP appeared to be more satisfied with the Commercial Cargo and Crew programs at this latest meeting, they still noted a cautious tone, especially on the area of certification.

“There are still some anxieties associated with commercial crew – how to move forward both expeditiously and safely and how to certify for human spaceflight,” added the final line of their opening statement.

After noting the “sea change” in the way NASA is to fund the commercial partners over the coming years – covering the next phase of the Program, Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) – the Panel added their commitment to ensuring a commercial crew company has to complete NASA certification procedures, prior to being allowed to transport NASA astronauts.

“The CCiCap extends through FY 2014; at that point, there are decisions to make,” noted the minutes. “One option forward is a more classic plan, which is to transition from Space Act Agreement to a classic Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based requirement with a NASA certification program, the completion of which would enable missions with NASA and NASA-sponsored crew members.

“Another option is being discussed: at the end of the CCiCap base period, the potential commercial providers would continue to perform optional milestones that would include an industry program for validating that requirements have been met and might even include company test pilots flying on crewed test flights. The Panel’s interest was piqued at this juncture.

“The ASAP strongly believes that NASA certification must be accomplished before the transport of NASA astronauts. Could it proceed concurrently with a partner validation? Perhaps, although funding limitations have been recognized. While either approach is potentially successful, the ASAP believes that NASA certification is a requirement and is on record as stating that a FAR-based requirements contract is the better way to proceed.

“The ASAP cautions against an option that would detract from, or in the minds of some, negate the necessity for a full NASA certification.”

At this point of the meeting, ASAP member John Frost added that the panel “want success in the upcoming commercial flights,” but that “interestingly, success could create friction”.

“If the commercial partners have a number of successes and fly commercial crew successfully, some who don’t understand the process might think that there would be no need for NASA insight and certification,” noted Mr Frost.

“It is important that NASA lay out the requirements early, and that they be tailored as appropriate for each company and design concept so as to be firm and clear and not subject to debate later in development. The plan for how NASA will certify is expected in September 2012, with final approval in October.

“NASA should avoid the illusion of no need for certification because of a few early successes. Certain flight successes can play an important role in developing confidence in the design, but should not negate the need for a formal certification by the government.”

The ASAP recognized that the certification of commercial crew vehicles for the transportation of NASA astronauts will require negotiations, citing the Space Shuttle is the only Earth-to-orbit system that NASA has certified past Preliminary Design Review (PDR) for many years.

“There will probably be a lot of give and take on requirements during acquisition,” the minutes added. “The ASAP will be following closely and asking questions as time goes on.”

(Images via L2, ULA, Boeing and NASA).

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