Bolden explains accident investigation methods to Congressman
NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden had to explain to Congressman Lamar Smith (R. Texas) as to why NASA was treating the Orbital ATK mishap differently from the SpaceX flight mishap. They are both accidents that need investigation, so why treat them differently?
On Oct. 28, 2014, an Antares rocket and its payload of a Cygnus spacecraft was lost. According to preliminary reports, it appears to have been a malfunction of a turbopump providing fuel to one of the rocket’s two AJ-26 engines.
SpaceX also encountered a mishap of its own, on June 28, 2015. The apparent cause of that accident appears to have been the structural failure of a bracket holding a helium tank in place.
In the letter written by Bolden, he points out that after the loss of Antares an Independent Review Team (IRT) was put together to begin the accident investigation. The decision to assemble the team and how that team would be managed fell to the Associate Administrator (AA) for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD). This followed the procedural requirements outlined in NASA document NPR 8621.1 – NASA Procedural Requirements for Mishap and Close Call Reporting, Investigating, and Recordkeeping.
Additionally, the U.S. Air Force would not assemble their own team, instead choosing to join the NASA IRT to consolidate data gathering.
In the case of SpaceX, NASA chose to conduct the investigation under an existing Launch Services Program (LSP) review rather than start an independent one. The LSP was already underway when the mishap with the Falcon 9 occurred since the Falcon rocket is planned for the use of ferrying crews to the International Space Station under the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program. The U.S. Air Force also chose to join in that investigation rather than commence with one of their own.
At present, Antares is solely used for launching cargo and satellites. It is not intended for human operations directly – it only supports on-orbit human endeavors, such as those on the ISS.
The Falcon 9 meanwhile is currently being developed to also ferry astronauts to the station. As such, it was already being studied under the LSP. Adding an independent review segment to that LSP is far less expensive to administer and will yield the same (and potentially more) data as opposed to standing up a full IRT for the Commercial Resupply Services 7 mission accident.
One additional factor regarding the SpaceX launch is that the hardware carried by the Falcon 9 was considered mission critical or high value. The International Docking Adapter (IDA) was on board the CRS-7 flight. With only two of these units in existence (there are parts to build a third), the SpaceX launch falls into this mission critical path. As such, the investigation will be using NASA Policy Directive 8610.7 Launch Services Risk Mitigation Policy for NASA-Owned and/or NASA-Sponsored Payloads/Missions as well as NPD 8610.23 the Launch Vehicle Technical Oversight Policy.
Both of these processes are incorporated into the NASA Launch Services (NLS II) contract that SpaceX has for sending astronauts to the ISS. Again, since these processes were already underway for the Crewed Dragon flights, it can be construed as making economical sense to combine the Falcon 9 ITR into the existing investigation.
Finally, Administrator Bolden points out that these are not NASA mishaps, but instead fall under FAA jurisdiction. NASA is the customer and, as such, has the right to conduct its own investigations into the mishaps, but they are not the enforcer of any outcome. That falls to the FAA. As a customer, they can refuse to transport their materials on board the craft (as well as nullify any contract with either Orbital ATK or SpaceX).
The letter written by Administrator Bolden articulates NASA’s position on the investigations. It also contains a lot of detail into the inner workings of NASA procedures.
Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.