WASHINGTON — While congratulating the agency on a successful Artemis-1 mission, a NASA safety panel said it was concerned about the agency’s safety culture and workforce as it prepared for the first crewed Artemis flight.
The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, in its annual report released earlier this month, commended NASA for a successful uncrewed test flight of Artemis 1 in late 2022. The mission, which included the first launch of the Space Launch System rocket, sent the Orion spacecraft close by of the moon and back, splashing down three and a half weeks after launch.
“The historic takeoff and landing of Artemis I is a clear success,” the panel wrote in its report. “The mission was a tremendous milestone for NASA and represents years of focus and preparation by all of NASA and the staff of the supporting contractors.”
Later in the report, however, the panel raised questions about the agency’s general security culture, particularly in relation to the Artemis mission series.
“The panel is concerned that NASA’s concerted attention to a healthy safety culture may have waned, leaving NASA vulnerable to the same failures that contributed to previous failures. This concern was compounded by the circumstances surrounding NASA’s decision to clean up the Artemis I launch in early September.
This was an indication of a problem during the second attempt to launch the Artemis 1 mission on September 3rd. NASA officials said at the time an “unintentional over-pressurization” of a liquid hydrogen line damaged a seal, resulting in a large leak of liquid hydrogen that scrubbed the launch. They speculated that human error caused the overpressure.
In its report, ASAP said a “manual command error” from the launch control center caused the leak. “A command error in a critical system is a serious condition which, in this case, could have endangered the vehicle and the launch pad,” it said. “The panel understands that this error was communicated to the Launch Director in real time and subsequently in internal and public forums in a manner inconsistent with expectations set by the CAIB or the recent Organizational Silence training program.” .”
The report did not elaborate on how error communication failed to meet expectations. It called the incident an “important — but missed — opportunity” to demonstrate important behaviors, such as making sure people are safe to speak up when they make a mistake and that people can access risk-related information “without fear of blame.” ” able to offer.
“Whether this case study represents a unique moment of mere inattention or a deep and pervasive weakness, it serves to remind NASA of the critical need to pay close attention to the fundamental tenets of a healthy safety culture,” ASAP’s report reads.
ASAP also raised concerns about the agency’s workforce, including those involved in the Artemis missions. The long gap between Artemis 1 and Artemis 2, which is not expected to launch until late 2024 at the earliest, could result in a loss of expertise, the panel warned.
“Of particular concern to the Panel is the possibility of a significant reduction in the size and experience level of the workforce following the completion of the Artemis I mission. There have been reports that a significant number of skilled workers may retire after Artemis I, affecting the dweller knowledge base left over to execute Artemis II,” the ASAP report said.
The panel noted that the “irregular cadence” of Artemis missions and the changing nature of each mission will present a challenge for even experienced workers. “In all respects, every Artemis mission is rightly called a test mission,” it said. “Each Artemis mission will be completely unique for the foreseeable future.”
At the panel’s most recent public meeting on February 9, shortly after the report’s release, panel members did not elaborate on the report’s concerns but reiterated their praise for the successful Artemis-1 mission.
“The preparation, execution and post-flight evaluation of Artemis 1 is a great first step for the Artemis program,” said William Bray, member of ASAP. “It provides a lot of learning and building an important muscle memory that will be required for the execution and success of future flights as well as the whole long-term program.”
The team working on Artemis 2, he added, is building on the success of Artemis 1. “The panel looks forward to seeing the continued application of rigor, discipline and focus on this flight.”
Patricia Sanders, chair of the panel, offered a cautionary tale. “Where there is potential for deadline pressures, we will continue to be vigilant about those deadline pressures so as not to lead to unwise or uncertain performance and security decisions and add risks of a different nature to the program.”