On May 22, SpaceX successfully launched their Dragon capsule aboard a Falcon 9 that had failed to launch just three days earlier. Although Dragon went on to make history, it seems that NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisor Panel (ASAP) was concerned. How could SpaceX have completed a thorough investigation and gotten the craft back on the launch pad in such a short span of time?
ASAP, headed by Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer, decided to look into the matter. After hearing from SpaceX Mission Assurance Director Scott Henderson and reviewing NASA’s report, the panel now seems to be satisfied. Notes from the group’s latest meeting stated that “ASAP understood from NASA’s report that the process was effective and efficient, turning around for a second successful launch attempt in three days; it was thorough, robust, fast, and transparent to NASA.”
Although ASAP has no direct authority over SpaceX or any of the commercial transport program activities, their opinion holds significant sway. The panel has been publicly cautious with respect to commercial space enterprises, questioning the use of Space Act Agreements which limits NASA’s control over commercial crew developments. “With the advent of commercial space, the ability of NASA to effectively understand and manage the total scope of risk becomes much more difficult,” Dyer noted in testimony before the US Congress in 2011. He went on to state that “to believe that commercial space flight removes risk from NASA’s programs is, at best, wishful thinking.”
Now, one year after an ASAP report that blasted SpaceX software development as presenting “a lack of insight and sophistication in what can go wrong in this business,” the panel seems to be feeling more comfortable with the commercial carrier. With ASAP’s blessing, it is likely that SpaceX will conduct its first resupply mission to the International Space Station in October 2012, possibly even squeezing in a second mission in December. Payload documentation for Dragon’s third resupply mission is already in progress.
NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel was established in 1968 in the aftermath of the Apollo 1 fire. It is charged with evaluating NASA’s safety performance, safety culture, and compliance with the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommendations. The panel then advises NASA and the US Congress on strategies for improving safety based on its evaluation. ASAP’s latest recommendations were passed on to NASA administrator Charles Bolden for his consideration on August 8.
Below, the aborted May 19 Falcon 9 launch: