NTSB Report Highlights Concerns Within FAA Commercial Space Office

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WASHINGTON — As the Federal Aviation Administration reviews the recommendations of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report on last year’s SpaceShipTwo accident, it is facing new scrutiny that its commercial space office, faced with a heavy workload, may have been under pressure to approve applications without sufficient review.

Among the stronger claims in the NTSB’s final report on the accident, which destroyed the Scaled Composites-built vehicle and killed its co-pilot, is that staff in the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) felt “political pressure” to approve experimental permits for SpaceShipTwo and other vehicles without doing what they considered a complete evaluation.

“An FAA/AST evaluator added that there was ‘a lot of pressure, political pressure’ to issue experimental permits, even when FAA/AST evaluators were uncomfortable with an application, which diminished AST’s safety culture,” the final NTSB report stated.

“When I read that, that worries me,” said Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member, after quoting that section of the report during a July 28 hearing here about the investigation. “What is this? Where is this pressure coming from?”

Neither NTSB investigators, nor the report and its supporting documents, offered any insights into the source of the perceived political pressure by FAA staff. Industry officials said they have seen no evidence of outside political pressure of any kind on the office.

“I haven’t seen that, and I don’t get the sense that it’s there,” said Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida and chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in an Aug. 7 interview here.

The report, though, indicates that some FAA staff felt internal pressure to complete reviews of experimental permit applications within the 120-day deadline established in federal law. It states that while the FAA had the ability to pause its review of permit applications if it needed more information, “that process was not used often and was not used for Scaled’s initial or renewal permit applications.”

FAA staff also complained about the process by which they requested information from Scaled or other applications. The FAA collected questions internally and reviewed them before sending them to Scaled, rather than have individual employees ask their own.

That approach, the FAA said, was designed to avoid burdening companies with questions, including those deemed not directly relevant to the application. AST’s primary focus is to protect the safety of the uninvolved public, and is currently restricted from enacting regulations regarding the safety of people flying on commercial spacecraft.

“However, FAA/AST technical staff members stated that, during the permit evaluation process, their questions to Scaled that did not directly relate to public safety were ‘filtered’ or ‘scrubbed,’” the NTSB report stated. One person complained to the NTSB that, as a result, the responses they often received were “so washed out, it’s not even what we asked for in the beginning.”

FAA staff also told investigators that they struggled with a heavy workload. “The best way I could characterize it is heavy, sometimes extremely heavy and never less than moderate,” one employee told investigators. “I think, in my opinion, at least, AST is understaffed.”

FAA has sought to address that perceived understaffing with a budget increase. The office, which received $16.6 million in 2015, requested a $1.5 million increase in 2016 to hire more employees. House and Senate appropriations bills provide some increased funding, but less than the request.

Industry officials strongly support the full budget increase. “Their resources are stretched, so we’re very supportive of an increase in funding for the FAA,” DiBello said. “I think not funding that is penny wise and pound foolish.”

“The silver lining that I hope comes out of this is the recognition of the need to fully fund AST to carry out their duties,” said Mike Gold, chairman of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, the industry panel that advises AST.

The FAA said it is reviewing the NTSB report’s recommendations, which include developing improved practices for communications between FAA staff and companies and encouraging greater discussions between applicants and the FAA when vehicles are still in the design stage.

“The FAA will closely examine and consider all NTSB findings and recommendations and respond to the board within 90 days of receipt of the final report,” FAA spokesman Hank Price said Aug. 7.

The NTSB said it was already seeing changes within the FAA, including the creation of a formal safety management system (SMS) that was not in place when Scaled filed for its experimental permit. “The NTSB is encouraged by the FAA/AST’s progress in implementing SMS and believes that, if SMS principles are followed, they will be an effective means for enhancing the regulatory oversight of the commercial space industry,” the report stated.