Panel Approves 2 Person ISS Crew; Uncertain About Crew Skills

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Last Friday the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) held a meeting to discuss safety issues associated with having a two person crew aboard the International Space Station. (ISS). The two person Expedition 7 crew composed of Commander Yuri Malenchenko and Flight Engineer/NASA ISS Science Officer Ed Lu is due to lift off from Baikonur Cosmodrome on 26 April 2003.

This two person crew complement came about in the aftermath of the Columbia accident and the grounding of the Shuttle fleet. Without the ability to fully resupply the ISS with various logistics, the ISS program made a study regarding the logistics required for a three person (nominal) crew vs. 2 person crew and the resupply resources the ISS program has available to it. The result of this assessment was that a two person crew could be supplied adequately using anticipated Progress and Soyuz flight rate although Russia has pledged some additional Progress flights to help alleviate any logistics bottlenecks.

At the regularly scheduled meeting of the ASAP at NASA headquarters on 24 March 2003 NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe asked the ASAP to report back on any possible safety issues associated with flying a 2 person crew on the ISS. A small team composed of ASAP members was assembled to complete this task.

Given that this was an unscheduled meeting, it was held via teleconference with some participants (including the press) in a room at NASA HQ. ASAP Chair Ms. Shirley McCarty, ASAP panelists Roger Schaufele, and Arthur Zygielbaum, and consultant s Richard Burckman, Walter Cantrell, and H. Clayton Foushee participated. Representatives were also present from NASA JSC including Astronaut James Weatherbee. Present at NASA HQ was ASAP Executive Director Leonard Sirota and Deputy Administrator Fred Gregory.

According to the ASAP panelists, a short review was conducted after O'Keefe made his 24 March request. The net result of the review was a single page "white paper" which described the ASAP's findings and recommendations.

According to the White Paper "Risk areas reviewed by the Panel included emergency EVA, incapacitation of one crew member, consumables, ISS emergencies (fire, penetration, and contamination), equipment failure, crew workload, system maintenance, and Soyuz service life limitations. In each case, concerns were assuaged during the Panel's review." No back-up documentation regarding the process of assessing the various risks by ASAP was provided or discussed.

One of the prime issues studied by the ASAP had to do with scenarios that might arise should the Soyuz spacecraft (5S) currently docked to the ISS be deemed unfit to use. In one scenario, dubbed the "serial" approach, the two person Expedition 7 Crew would not be launched aboard Soyuz 6S until the three person Expedition 6 crew had safely returned to Earth in Soyuz 5S.

In the other "parallel" option, Soyuz 6S would dock with the ISS. There would be a short period wherein both crews would overlap until such time as the Expedition 6 crew would use Soyuz 5S to return home. If Soyuz 5S were deemed unfit to make that trip, the Expedition 6 crew would use Soyuz 5 to return home.

The ASAP found that the risk inherent in the "serial" approach wherein the ISS would be without a crew was "an order of magnitude worse" than the risk posed under the "parallel' option wherein continuous human presence was maintained.

Of course, should there be a problem with Soyuz 5S under the "parallel" option this would leave the Expedition 7 crew aboard the ISS with no means of return until such time as another Soyuz was launched. When asked by the press how this would be handled, the ASAP panelists said that the process of launching a new Soyuz would be "expedited" in an unspecified period which would simply be "less than the normal 6 month interval".

Curiously, the panel did not voice any concerns about the risk inherent in leaving two crew members aboard the ISS for months without a means of assured return to Earth. Given that the Soyuz 5S might not be used (and that the Shuttle fleet will remain grounded for a while) one would have to assume that this "expedited" Soyuz would be launched with a single person aboard (incurring some level increased risk in and of itself) who would either join the Expedition 7 crew (thus drawing down resources) or bring them home thus incurring the uncrewed ISS risk inherent in the "serial" approach. The panel did not discuss these ramifications.

As was mentioned in the short White Paper, training issues were also addressed. It is more or less standard procedure for at least 2 of a nominal 3 person Soyuz crew to be fully proficient Soyuz pilots and to have received formal certification of those skills. Since there will only be 2 people on Soyuz 6S and aboard the ISS as the Expedition 7 crew it would be logical to assume that the Russians (and the other ISS partners) would ask that both individuals be certified Soyuz pilots.

When I asked the ASAP panelists if astronaut Lu had received the same level of training required of a certified Soyuz pilot, the ASAP panelists assembled on the telecon were unable to answer definitively. When I asked the question a second time, Roger D. Schaufele, one of the panelists, tried to suggest that since the Soyuz is automated that training has to do with what needs to be done if an intervention is required in a situation where that automation was not working properly. Schaeufele added "it is my understanding is both fellows have gone through same amount of training that others have"

Having not gotten a ' yes' or ' no' answer, I then asked the question a third time. No one on the panel could say whether or not Lu had same certification as has other pilots - or if he had received the same level of training as other American astronauts who have flown on Soyuz. Instead, the panel said that they'd "need to check with the program". Curiously, several JSC staff -including astronaut James Wetherbee - were identified as being present on the loop at the beginning of the teleconference. No one from JSC sought to provide any additional information even when this question was asked three times.

Later, I spoke with Allard Beutel from NASA HQ PAO who checked with JSC on the training issue. A prompt response was that Lu had indeed received training and had received "Board Engineer" certification regarding his ability to pilot a Soyuz spacecraft. Given that crew training was at the core of the ability to handle contingencies aboard the ISS, it is rather curious that no one on the ASAP knew the answer to such a simple question.

Manning space stations with a 2 person crew is not new. Two person crews lived aboard the Soviet Salyut series of space station did for many years. Indeed, there were times when a 2 person crew could perform positively heroic tasks such as was the case with the resuscitation of Salyut 7. None the less, ISS, with its larger, more complex operations - including an every growing complement of science tasks, requires much more attention if it is to be fully operational and maximally productive.

While NASA's Administrator often takes issue with the number, the ISS program has been saying for several years now that 2.5 crew equivalent are required to keep the ISS in operation, with a resultant 0.5 crew equivalent available for science. Clearly, reducing the crew to 2 will severely curtail the amount of time available for science.

While the issue of scientific productivity was not under the purview of the ASAP, operating the ISS was. If one ignores the 0.5 crew equivalent needed for science 2.5 people are still needed to operate the station under nominal (3 person crew) circumstances. The ASAP did not explain what was or was not being done such that 2.0 people could do this safely.

Having not been present at any of the briefings given by ISS program staff of the ASAP it would be presumptuous for me to make any judgments about the decision they arrived at and the information used to make such an assessment. However, it is somewhat unsettling, short response time not withstanding, that so little detail was been provided as to how this assessment and recommendation by the ASAP was made.

I asked ASAP Executive Director Len Sirota if any additional information was going to be made available. He said that there would not. When I asked him if he thought a one page ' white paper' was sufficient treatment of this topic he replied "have you seen our other assessments? They are often one page too". Given that the panel is often critical of NASA's own decision making processes this is a somewhat hypocritical stance for a safety panel to take. One would hope that they are more forthcoming about their own deliberative and evaluative processes in the future.

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