Safety Panel Criticizes Lack of Commercial Crew Transparency

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Updated 5 p.m. Jan. 30

WASHINGTON — An independent panel said Jan. 28 it could not evaluate the safety of NASA’s commercial crew program because of the unwillingness of the agency’s leadership to provide information the panel sought about it.

In its annual report, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) said that efforts by the panel to gain insight into the program, including about contracts awarded last September to Boeing and SpaceX, were met with “a seamless set of constraints” regarding why that information could not be released.

“Regrettably, the Panel is unable to offer any informed opinion regarding the adequacy of the certification process or the sufficiency of safety in the Commercial Crew Program due to constraints on access to needed information,” the panel’s chairman, Joseph Dyer, said in a cover letter to the report delivered to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

The panel focused their criticism primarily on one official at NASA Headquarters, the director of commercial spaceflight development, a position currently held by Phil McAlister. “This lack of transparency has been a concern for a number of years,” the panel stated in its report, despite a series of discussions with him and other senior NASA leaders.

Phil McAlister, NASA's director of Commercial Spaceflight Development during a 2013 panel discussion on the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative. Credit:NASA/Jay Wescott
Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, during a 2013 panel discussion on the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services initiative. Credit:NASA/Jay Wescott

“Over the last several years, the [director of commercial spaceflight development] has responded to ASAP’s requests for information related to the plans on how commercial programs would be certified or how confidence would be gained on the safety of operations with a seamless set of constraints as to why the information could not be shared,” the report states.

The report said that those explanations ranged from information being “pre-decisional” to ongoing evaluations of commercial crew proposals and, later, a protest filed by a losing bidder to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “While these statements are all true, these conditions should not be absolute barriers to sharing information related to certification and safety,” the panel argues in its report.

The panel said that it did receive some requested information from NASA in mid-December, but “only after the Panel made it clear that this failure to share information would be covered in this Report.” That information, ASAP said, arrived too late to be incorporated into its 2014 report.

Blackout Period

At a Jan. 26 press conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, agency officials indicated that the commercial crew contracting process, including the GAO protest, had limited the agency’s ability to share information about the program. “We had been in blackout for the past year while the procurement was ongoing, and then with the protest we were limited in the details of the contract that we could give you,” said Kathy Lueders, commercial crew program manager.

Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa,left, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders, Boeing's Jon Elbon, Gwynne Shotwell and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke at Jan. 26 press conference. Credit: NASA TV screenshot
Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa, left, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders, Boeing’s Jon Elbon, Gwynne Shotwell and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke at Jan. 26 press conference. Credit: NASA TV screenshot

Despite its criticism of the lack of transparency in the commercial crew program, the panel was broadly supportive of the overall program, including NASA’s decision to award two contracts for the development of commercial crew vehicles. It did reiterate concerns in prior reports that the program may not be sufficiently funded, and “strongly encourages Congress in future years to appropriate the dollars necessary” to fully fund those contracts.

In a statement provided by NASA Jan. 29, Bolden did not directly address the panel’s issues with the commercial crew program. “Safety remains our top priority as the agency continues to execute a long range plan for deep space exploration,” he said. “The agency strongly agrees that continued robust funding for commercial crew is essential to NASA’s work.”

In a statement provided to SpaceNews Jan. 30, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations William Gerstenmaier confirmed that NASA restricted data on the commercial crew contracts because of the procurement blackout and the GAO protest. “The CCtCap procurement blackout and protest period caused the agency to restrict data and product releases to all parties for an extended period of time of almost one year,” he said. “Protecting the procurement process helps ensure the best selection for the nation was made.”

Gerstenmaier said NASA has started to provide the panel with information about the program now that the GAO has denied the protest. “We appreciate the ASAP’s patience, and we look forward to the valuable insight the ASAP provides,” he said in the statement.

On-time Delivery?

ASAP also raised questions about the commercial resupply of the International Space Station. The panel noted that the seven commercial resupply missions flown through the end of 2014 — four by SpaceX and three by Orbital Sciences Corp. — suffered extensive delays from their initial contracted dates. The report data indicates that the missions experienced an average delay of more than 23 months, of which 22 months was caused by the companies.

Those concerns are exacerbated by the October 2014 failure of Orbital’s Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus cargo spacecraft, leaving the burden on SpaceX until Orbital is able to fly a Cygnus on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 in late 2015. “There will be additional pressure on cargo logistics while Orbital works through its plan to resume cargo missions,” the report notes.