WASHINGTON NASA safety watchdogs are warning that continued underfunding of the agency’s commercial crew initiative could put astronauts at risk by increasing the temptation to cut corners in order to end U.S. dependence on Russia for accessing the international space station (ISS).

Under the 2012 budget Congress enacted late last year, NASA will get less than half of the $850 million it requested to put at least two U.S. firms under contract this year to develop privately operated crew taxis.

In a report released Jan. 25, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) — an outside group of experts chartered to sniff out NASA safety problems and recommend changes — says the $406 million Congress approved will not allow commercial crew transportation to the ISS by 2016.

“In fact, if the new funding level continues into the future, it is the ASAP’s belief that the program is in jeopardy, thus extending the current lack of a U.S. human spaceflight capability and resulting in no alternative to reliance on Russia to obtain access to the ISS,” the ASAP wrote in its annual report.

While the ASAP praised Russia’s efforts to return its venerable Soyuz crew capsule to flight last fall following an August launch failure that destroyed a station-bound Progress cargo vessel, the panel noted its concern about continued U.S. reliance on Soyuz — a 40-year-old system, it said, “with an uncertain long-term future.”

NASA, seeking to end that dependence, is preparing to solicit proposals for a two-year effort to prepare competing astronaut transportation concepts for production.

But the ASAP points out that NASA managers are worried about commercial crew funding going forward and consider “inadequate budget” to be “the top program risk.”

In ASAP’s view, an inadequately funded commercial crew program threatens more than just spacecraft development timelines; it could also compromise safety.

“The ASAP considers the lack of a credible and appropriately funded plan to develop a U.S. capability to launch its astronauts to the ISS to be an issue with significant safety implications,” the report says. “If the development program is continued without adequate funding, it will increase the likelihood that safety-related testing and modifications to correct any design deficiencies would not be made.”

The ASAP also took issue with NASA’s abrupt about-face on the use of Space Act Agreements for the next phase of the commercial crew development program, known at the time as CCDev. NASA disappointed would-be commercial crew providers last summer when it announced it would award conventional fixed-price contracts, rather than more-flexible Space Act Agreements, for the next round of CCDev awards. But after Congress halved the Commercial Crew Program’s budget request in November, NASA announced Dec. 21 it would stick with Space Act Agreements.

“Previously, NASA had made a strong safety case for using conventional contracting on the next phase of the CCDev Program, an approach that was viewed as well reasoned and appropriate by the ASAP,” the report says. “The ASAP acknowledges NASA’s assertion that the change is primarily driven by funding uncertainties and the need to maintain more than one provider for commercial crew transportation services. However, we believe that the sudden change in acquisition strategy in an effort to salvage the [Commercial Crew Program] may have significantly increased the risk to safety that the previous plan had begun to address.”

The ASAP report also flagged the international space station as an area of special concern. The panel said NASA managers had not yet shared a plan for safely deorbiting the outpost if it had to be abandoned before its planned end of life in 2020.

Citing a briefing it received from NASA in May, the ASAP said the odds of a mission loss at some point in the space station’s remaining on-orbit life are greater than 30 percent. A loss of mission, ASAP warned, might force NASA and its international partners to abandon the station, never to return.

“One cannot escape the conclusion that the risk of an ISS [loss of mission] is more than an outside possibility,” ASAP wrote. “While this possibility has been known for some time, NASA has not yet shared with the Panel an explicit plan to deal with this situation.”

The report urges NASA to begin seriously considering how to safely deorbit the 400 metric-ton space station.



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.