The folks at NASA are working on some exciting things, to be sure, but accelerated schedules and low funding are starting to take their toll — to the point that they could threaten the lives of U.S. astronauts.
A new report from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) looks at the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System (SLS) that NASA has conceived to carry astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. The problem? Safety concerns are starting to arise, as the agency cuts corners due to obvious budget pressures and an apparent lack of accountability.
Here’s a choice excerpt from the findings, via ASAP chairman Joseph W. Dyer,:
In this year’s report, you will see the ASAP’s increased focus on the Exploration Systems Development (ESD) endeavor. Financial and perceived schedule pressures are impacting safety and design considerations. Although in past years, ESD has received more appropriations from Congress than requested, the Orion and Space Launch System Programs are at a crucial stage where schedule constraints and funding profiles are starting to have significant safety implications. Safety is directly linked to the sufficiency and timing of funding needed to execute NASA’s programs. We continue to be impressed with how much the Agency accomplishes with relatively little. The annual uncertainty associated with funding level and late appropriations also create an additional strain on program planning and ultimate safety. The Congress can support improved safety with more robust funding and with better budget profiling.
As Popular Science notes, a lot of the problems come down to three critical factors in the Orion and SLS projects: the Orion heat shields, the life support system and the launch abort system. A test flight in late 2014 found cracks in the heat shield seams (which could burn up the capsule and astronauts inside if it malfunctions), so NASA redesigned the shield. But they don’t actually plan to test out the redesign until the SLS’s first flight in 2018 — which is just one flight before a planned crewed mission within the next five years. Considering the shield is a critical component, that might be cutting it a bit too close.
Things get even dicier when looking to the life support system, which is currently scheduled for its first full test during that initial manned flight — meaning those astronauts will essentially be depending on an untested system to keep them breathing. Lastly, the launch abort system (designed to eject the astronaut capsule during launch in the event of a malfunction/explosion) is not even set for testing in that 2018 flight.
Looking toward the big picture, and the safety issues standing in the way of the current Mars proposal, ASAP notes that a “well-designed mission” with rewards that outweigh the risks could help restore some public support in the space agency. Without that, the committee recommends that NASA should perhaps “be working on a different mission, or at least using a different approach for the current mission.”