Earlier this month the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel issued its 2012 Annual Report. Looking for hazards across the space agency's wide-ranging portfolio of on-going and proposed operations and facilities, the panel assessed six issues and concerns. Only one of the six in the three-color-coded graphic was red: the continuing issue of funding uncertainty. "NASA's budget is the 'elephant in the room' both for commercial space and for longer term exploration" the panel warned.
Vice Admiral (Retired) Joseph Dyer chairs the nine member Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP). Established in 1968, Congress has required the panel to issue an annual report since the 2003 Shuttle Columbia accident. Its charter requires the panel to:
"review safety studies and operations plans referred to it and make reports thereon; advise the NASA Administrator and the Congress with respect to the hazards of proposed or existing facilities and proposed operations, the adequacy of proposed or existing safety standards, management and culture related to safety; and perform such other duties as the NASA Administrator may request."
The Annual Report for 2012 was submitted to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Vice President Joseph Biden and House Speaker John Boehner. In his January 9 cover letters, Dyer listed the six issues and concerns that are the focus of the report, and warned:
"Of these, the Funding Uncertainty and Commercial Crew Program [CPP] are interrelated and of the most concern. . . . For the last two years, the CCP appropriation has been approximately one half of the budget request. Informal communications with congressional staffs indicate this will probably be the case again in Fiscal Year (FY) 13.
"In carrying out our responsibilities, the ASAP hears both sides of the story. The NASA program team highlights inability to execute the program of record and grapples with the necessity to modify acquisition strategy to adjust for the funding shortfalls. The Congress notes the lack of credible cost estimate, the absence of an integrated schedule, and 'program instability.' In the Panel's opinion, a consensus between the Congress and NASA will be required to resolve this conundrum."
In its color-coded summary assessment of Issues and Concerns, the International Space Station was given a green designation for "significant progress" NASA has made for Micro-Meteoroid and Orbital Debris tolerance and station deorbit plans. Color-coded yellow, for a "concern or issue . . . that is currently being addressed by NASA" were Commercial Crew Program, Exploration Systems Development, Technical Authority, and Risk Management.
Funding Uncertainty was the only issue or concern that was color-coded red. The panel wrote:
"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."
The panel later wrote "there is still a large funding shortfall in the facilities repair budget line." Discussed at greater length was NASA's "bold new effort to place humans in LEO [low Earth orbit] at much lower cost" using commercial partnerships. "Although they are showing promise as cost savers, they have yet to be validated as safe and effective for human spaceflight development" the panel stated, expressing concern about confidently certifying commercial crew systems. Finding there are "few options available to NASA when the budget is reduced," the panel advises "it is essential that NASA increase its awareness of possible safety implications and address those immediately."
The report continues:
"In conclusion, for several years now, we have seen gaps between what NASA is attempting to do and what it is funded to do. The result has been goals, requirements, schedules, and missions that are ever-changing to fit available budgets. With the current budget uncertainties, major manned spaceflight programs are being conducted at a 'Level of Effort' to fit available budgets rather than targeted to a firm mission with a firm schedule. Large scale, high-risk programs are being undertaken using untried acquisition approaches to meet available budgets.
"In the view of the ASAP, 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. This disconnect is seen by the ASAP as a major risk driver in human spaceflight, which is why this area is color coded red."
Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics