NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel: Where's the Advice?

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NASA's new Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) met for the second time today since its rebirth following a mass resignation last Fall. In a marked contrast to how the panel operated just a year ago, the ASAP exhibited a somewhat detached, imprecise view of how the agency was handling safety issues.

In a turn of events which has at least one reporter confused, NASA's prime safety advisory body has not even bothered to discuss the cancellation of the Hubble servicing mission - a very public decision made on the basis of safety.

Some History

The previous ASAP was often criticized within NASA as acting as if they were managing the agency - not 'advising' it. This tendency became abundantly clear at the 25 March 2003 ASAP meeting where tempers boiled close to the surface as panel members (and astronauts) expressed heart-felt complaints about NASA's lack of concern for escape systems for the Space Shuttle in the aftermath of the Columbia accident.

After additional months wherein the agency and the ASAP were regularly at odds, all 9 members of the panel eventually resigned on 22 September 2003, just 4 days after meeting.

In responding to this unexpected mass resignation, Sean O'Keefe took the opportunity to revisit the nature of the ASAP, a panel which had been formed in the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, and whose role had evolved somewhat over the years.

In November 2003 O'Keefe named an entire new ASAP and gave the panel anew charter which closely reflect the original charter authorized by Congress in 1967.

Today's meeting

The panel's public session was held after a day and a half of NASA briefings behind closed doors. A short summary of these briefings revealed nothing remarkable or newsworthy with the short descriptions more or less reflecting things that NASA personnel had said in the past several months.

Following this summary, ASAP Chairman, retired Vice Admiral Joe Dyer, presented the main points that he felt expressed the panel's current concerns.

First, Dyer said "NASA's challenges are organizational and cultural - not technical." Second, "NASA is desiring to make lasting cultural changes while making major organizational changes: are these tow changes compatible?" Third, ASAP's role is to advise the Administrator over the totality of NASA's mission areas and do this in the long term."

As to the observations that the ASAP saw as they sat down for this quarterly meeting Dyer said "Frankly, we would have liked to see more progress". With regard to organizational change Dyer said that it was "clearing but not yet clear." When question about this later Dyer backpedaled a bit and said that he (and the ASAP) were not being critical - but rather that "we would [like to have been] celebratory".

ASAP - NASA's Safety "Board of Directors"

This issue of how the ASAP saw its role came up for discussion. Rosemary O'Leary (also a member of the NASA Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group) said "I don't think anyone on this panel wants to manage NASA. We are here to advise NASA." Deborah Grubbe added that she felt the ASAP saw itself serving as "a board of directors." Dyer added that he saw the ASAP being somewhat akin to a "corporate board". "We meet once a quarter, make an assessment, and make a comment on progress made" he said.

When asked if the ASAP would raise issues, Dyer replied "the board does have the responsibility to say 'this is not progressing as it should' if they think that is warranted." He said that it was his understanding that this is what Sean O'Keefe wanted them to do.

John Marshall said "change is part of our charter. We will not hesitate to make an observation and recommendations if need be."

A glimmer of Specificity

The only time the ASAP even approached being specific was in regard to the NESC - NASA Engineering Safety Center being established at NASA Langley Research Center. The NESC is being assembled as NASA's response to the recommendations by the CAIB (Columbia Accident Investigation Board) that an "Independent Technical (Engineering) Authority " (ITA) be established "that is responsible for technical requirements and all waivers to them, and will build a disciplined, systematic approach to identifying, analyzing, and controlling hazards throughout the life cycle of the Shuttle System."

The ASAP seemed to be less than pleased with the progress made on implementing the NESC thus far and were concerned with how lines of authority, reporting procedures, and the overall niche the NESC/ITA would fill. When asked if they would comment about the information NASA had given them about the planned management they would not say whether they had seen one or many proposals or what they thought about any one of them in particular.

I asked Dyer if indeed this was "just a feeling they had" and that they were "not keeping a scorecard" on how NASA was doing. He agreed with my characterizations - adding that "we are impatient about the pace of the ITA."

NASA's Most Recent Safety Controversy

In January 2004 NASA announced that the planned shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope was to be cancelled. The prime, overriding reason given for this decision was "safety". Specifically, Sean O'Keefe based his decision upon the various recommendations the CAIB had made regarding on-orbit shuttle inspection and repair and the desirably of a 'safe haven' capability on the ISS should a shuttle not be able to return to Earth. Such a capability would not be available during a Hubble Servicing mission.

In the ensuing weeks NASA was hammered by critics that linked the Hubble decision to the President's new space policy (announced just days before the Hubble decision became known), and often characterized the decision as an attempt to purposefully destroy the Hubble. Throughout the storm NASA steadfastly maintained that the decision was based on safety concerns only and that the concerns were derived from NASA's understanding of what the CAIB had intended.

To stifle some of the criticism NASA asked CAIB chair Hal Gehman to undertake a review of that decision and how it matched with the CAIB's recommendations. Gehman came back with a somewhat weak response which, while not overtly contradicting O'Keefe's decision, said that NASA should do the best that it possibly can. Congressional pressure led to a request that the National Academy of Sciences examine the SM4 cancellation issue with a report due sometime late Spring/early Summer 2004.

NASA also issued a white paper which addressed the decision to cancel the SM4 mission. The 5 1/2 page paper uses the word 'safety' 5 times, 'risk' 17 times, and 'safe haven' 7 times.

The paper stated "Recognizing the increased risks involved in all Shuttle flights following the tragic loss of the Columbia and crew NASA elected to reduce its planned Shuttle manifest to only missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The decision was also made, on the basis of risk, to not pursue a final servicing mission to the HST, but instead to investigate other options to extend the life of the Hubble."

Clearly the issue of safety was being driven home to the reader of the paper.

Further, in a New York Times OpEd Sean O'Keefe said "Accordingly, it may not make sense to devote time and energy to a mission to the Hubble — only to find that the safety actions and procedures required by the board could not be followed. This would place NASA in the untenable position of having to decide whether to undertake the Hubble mission without the required safety elements in place. This is precisely the type of "schedule pressure" that the board quite correctly cited as undermining the future safe operation of the shuttle."

When a Safety Panel Won't Discuss Safety

Given that this was the first black eye that NASA got after the announcement of a new space policy (rightfully or not) - one linked to a decision made on the basis of safety; that the decision came a year after a fatal shuttle accident; and that NASA's primary safety advisory body had quit en mass and was reconstituted; one would think that the ASAP would have at least a passing interest in the topic of cancelling a space shuttle mission for safety reasons.

When I asked Dyer if the ASAP had been asked to examine the SM4 cancellation decision - or had decided to look into it on its own, he said that it had not. He added "I do not believe that this panel would be well served to take up the issue." He also tried to dismiss any particular concern over this one issue by saying "there are thousands of issues before NASA."

Steve Wallace (who also served on the CAIB) was also dismissive of the Hubble issue. Waving around a copy of the CAIB report he said "the word 'Hubble' is not in here". He then said that the Hubble issue "is a detailed risk benefit decision best done by experts."

I then asked, somewhat incredulously, why a panel named the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel would not think that such a prominent issue - one with safety and CAIB recommendations at its very core - would not be even discussed by the ASAP. I also asked if the ASAP would be considering taking it up in the future, Dyer replied tersely "it is not on the agenda at this time."

When asked about safety issues currently facing the ISS - specifically the Elektron oxygen producing unit - the panel members replied that they had a briefing and that they were not concerned. Wallace said "overseeing what the ISS is doing [meeting on a quarterly basis] would not serve that crew up there very well."

This is all rather curious when you consider that the ASAP's new charter states "2.0 Objectives and scope: The Panel will review, evaluate, and advise on elements of NASA's safety and quality systems, including industrial and systems safety, risk management and trend analysis, and the management of these activities. Priority will be given to those programs that involve the safety of human flight."

Detached and Unconcerned

To be certain, the relationship between the previous incarnation of the ASAP and NASA, while driven by people with serious and merit worthy concerns, had become dysfunctional. A re-engagement was clearly needed. However, the 'board of directors' model embraced by this panel seems to have a serious flaw in its application.

While the ASAP is correct in not wanting to get into the management of the agency - even in the most high level way, it cannot just let serious issues such as the Hubble decision (which have safety at their very core) simply float by in the distance.

It is better to consider such things and run the risk of meddling than to avoid topics altogether. The CAIB warned repeatedly about NASA's culture as it relates to complacency with regards to discussing risk. In an ironic twist the ASAP is doing just that. Indeed, it is simply taking NASA's word that the Hubble decision was a sound one.

A quick look at this panel's membership reveals it to be a truly diverse group of highly qualified experts - unaffected by NASA's culture - who could truly provide NASA with valuable advice.

Alas, an advisory board that is reluctant or afraid to provide advice is a waste of everyone's time.

Related Links

  • NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel
  • 14 March 2004: NASA's Hubble Space Telescope: A Fate Far From Certain, SpaceRef
  • 14 March 2004: Advancing Both Science and Safety, OpEd, Sean O'Keefe, NY Times
  • 11 March 2004: NASA White Paper: Cancellation of the Fifth (SM-4) Hubble Servicing Mission
  • 8 February 2004: Anonymous Documents Describe Shuttle Hubble Mission Risks
  • 26 January 2004: Hubble's End - or a New Beginning?
  • 4 December 2003: NASA Langley Research Center Response to the Agency Safety and Mission Success Week November 17-21, 2003
  • 18 November 2003: NASA Names New Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) Members
  • 23 September 2003: Rep. Ralph Hall Statement on ASAP Resignations
  • 23 September 2003: NASA Administrator Accepts Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Resignations
  • 26 March 2003: Safety Panel to NASA: Build a "Full Envelope" Shuttle Escape System, SpaceRef

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