Witnesses Say NASA Must Have Expanded Role in Ensuring Astronaut Safety as Commercial Spaceflight Capabilities Develop

Sep 14, 2012
Witnesses Say NASA Must Have Expanded Role in Ensuring Astronaut Safety as Commercial Spaceflight Capabilities Develop

Washington DC – The Science, Space, and Technology Committee today held a hearing to review NASA’s rationale for selecting three companies to award $1.1 billion to develop competing concepts for human space transportation launch systems.  Witnesses and Members discussed the cost and safety implications of these decisions and examined the level of NASA’s insight and thus, its ability to evaluate technical and safety requirements.

Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) said, “NASA now seeks to use government funds to stimulate aerospace companies to develop multiple, competing human spaceflight systems – systems for which NASA may be the only customer. How and when will we know the safety of these new systems?”

NASA’s commercial crew program is funding the development of multiple competing concepts for human spaceflight vehicles. With this program the government is stimulating aerospace companies to develop human spaceflight vehicles and systems that NASA hopes will eventually result in multiple, safe crew transportation options from which NASA can then purchase crew transportation services to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017. The program has been underway since 2010, allocating a total of $366 million among six companies in the first two phases.

Ultimately though, before NASA can purchase any transportation services from successful developers, it will have to certify that the systems are capable of performing NASA’s missions and are safe enough to carry American and our international partner astronauts to the ISS.

Mr. William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, testified that "NASA is committed to ensuring that the requirements, standards, and processes for Crew Transportation Services certification for all commercial missions are held to the same or equivalent safety standards as Government human spaceflight systems.”

However, Vice Admiral Joseph W. Dyer, USN (Ret.), Chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, expressed significant concerns with NASA’s proposed plans.  Since the U.S. government will not own the vehicles, the designs, or the intellectual property, NASA cannot exercise the same level of insight it normally has in other technology development efforts.  Admiral Dyer told Committee Members that NASA’s, “current acquisition approach—commercial transportation system development that is funded under a space act agreement concurrent with certification that is funded under a federal acquisition regulation-based contract—is complex and unique. In our opinion, this approach is a workaround for the requirements and communications challenges implicit to the space act agreements.”

Further Admiral Dyer said that NASA “unquestionably face[s] a number of challenges in reaching the point where these [launch] systems can be confidently certified as being ‘safe enough’ for the astronauts that rely on this process to ensure their safety.”  Adding that at this point in time designs “are maturing before requirements,” and “government and industry have not yet agreed on how winning designs will be accepted and certified.  We worry that the cart is ahead of the horse.”

During the current phase of design, under a Space Act Agreement, no NASA crew transportation system requirements can be levied on the commercial partners. And moreover, NASA has not been able to credibly estimate the expected total cost to certify the companies’ designs, or the cost to buy launch services. To a large degree the per-seat cost will depend on the number, and financial strength of non-government purchasers that enter the market.

Chairman Hall questioned this acquisition strategy, saying, “It’s hard for me to understand why NASA is proceeding this way. Will this result in systems that are safe for our American and international partner astronauts? How will NASA know if they don’t have the insight? And perhaps more importantly to those of us in Congress who are asked to fund this, how and when will NASA know if it is getting what it needs and if these systems will be safe enough? Redesigns will be costly and time consuming if important technical or safety requirements were not addressed up front.”