Missing the Mark

The recent safety report by the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) really missed the mark. The panel was set up to review the most important safety issues facing NASA. Instead, they issued recommendations that went beyond safety and into program policy regarding the retirement of the shuttle, buying rides from the Russians and the schedule and budget of the Constellation program.

Many programmatic decisions, large and small, are a trade-off and compromise among competing priorities such as safety, schedule, cost, functionality and program objectives. Therefore, a decision, or program action, based only on safety, independent of the other factors, is not of much use. The safest thing would be to not fly at all. There is no evidence that the panel reviewed these other important factors in any substantial way.

The crucial issue facing NASA in the very near term is whether to proceed to retire the shuttle, proceed with Constellation as currently planned or to make changes that could affect NASA for the next dozen or more years. The ASAP was not directed or configured to address critical programmatic issues beyond safety. If the ASAP were to make a real contribution, they could have performed an independent evaluation of the operating safety of shuttle, Soyuz and Ares/Orion.

Safety evaluation of the Soyuz should include examination of redundancy in critical systems, treatment of “near misses” and anomalies, as well as current and future safety practices. There is no mention of this evaluation in the ASAP report, except to refer to Soyuz’s “robust” record.

As far as an evaluation of Ares/Orion safety, an independent evaluation should include not only what the ultimate safety could be, but the relatively risky few dozen test/development flights that the Constellation team is planning to use for routine operations after the very first flight. Just like new aircraft, the first few dozen flights of a launcher are really development flights, in that they include much inflight instrumentation and extensive postflight analyses to identify and fix potential safety problems in manufacture, systems and procedures before they can cause serious failures inflight.

Robert F. Thompson

Former manager of the Shuttle Program


O. Glenn Smith, Ph.D.

Former manager of Shuttle Systems Engineering NASA Johnson Space Center