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Safety Panel Warns NASA Over Commercial Launchers

An independent review says the safety of commercial launch vehicles must be assessed.
January 20, 2010

In the next couple weeks the Obama administration will make a decision on the future of U.S. human spaceflight. Now, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), an independent panel that has been evaluating NASA’s safety performance and advising the agency since 1968, has published its annual report, which questions the safety of using commercial launch vehicles to put astronauts in space.

In 2009, an independent committee, the Augustine Panel, was commissioned to review the current U.S. human spaceflight program and to provide recommendations to the administration. The panel’s final report implied that NASA should abandon its new rocket, Ares I, which is being built to ferry astronauts into orbit after the space shuttles retire. Instead, the panel said NASA should rely on the commercial sector to carry both crew and cargo into low Earth orbit.

ASAP states that NASA’s program for the development of commercial systems, called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), is absent of a human-rating process. So far, the agency has only awarded contracts to two companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, for the development of systems to carry cargo. ASAP is also concerned about NASA’s lack of assessing the safety of these systems.

According to the ASAP report, “switching from a well-designed, safety-optimized system to commercially-developed vehicles based on nothing more than unsubstantiated claims would seem a poor choice. Before any change is made to another architecture, the inherent safety of that approach must be assessed to ensure that it offers a level of safety equal to or greater than the program of record.”

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