Safety panel concerned about moon ship design

The NASA Constellation Program's crew module mock-up is seen under construction February 9, 2008 at NASA's Langley's Flight Test Article Development and Integration Facility in Hampton, Virginia. Sean Smith / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

NASA is not properly emphasizing safety in its design of a new spaceship and its return-to-the-moon program faces money, morale and leadership problems, an agency safety panel found Monday.

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel cited "surprising anxiety among NASA employees" about the Constellation moon program and said the project "lacks clear direction." Its 143-page annual report specifically faulted the agency's design of the Orion crew capsule for not putting safety features first.

Officials in charge of the program, defending the design safety at a news conference, wouldn't say whether astronauts are among the worried employees. Astronauts would have to fly in the Orion crew capsule, with a first launch planned by 2015.

Past NASA spaceships were built with enough backup safety systems "to ensure safety and reliability," from the start, the report said. But it said that because of weight problems with the Orion design, NASA has used a different approach, one "without all safeguards included" from the beginning. In the Orion project, any added safety feature would have to "earn its way in" to the design by justifying that the increased safety was worth the extra cost and weight.

That's not right, said the safety advisory panel, which includes two former space shuttle astronauts and was created after the deadly 1967 Apollo 1 fire. The panel said it is "concerned that this process may not be capable of providing adequate protection against hazards that will only come to light once the spacecraft is in operation."

NASA's Constellation program officials defended the safety of the still evolving spaceship design, but acknowledged that some NASA employees are unhappy with it.

Because it is so difficult and expensive to send a rocket to the moon and back, designers start with the minimum necessary and then improve it in areas that give the greatest return for the money and added weight, said Constellation program manager Jeff Hanley.

"That has made some folks uncomfortable, but guess what? We're not done yet," Hanley said Monday. "We are not just blindly cutting out" back-up safety systems.

"We're not going to please everybody," he said. "If we tried to please everybody the spacecraft would not get off the ground."

Hanley said he had not seen the safety panel's report, which also praised some aspects of the program and looked at the agency in general.

As the safety panel report came out, Constellation program officials announced in a telephone press conference that their own ambitious internal schedule for the first launch of the Orion capsule with astronauts aboard is being pushed back one year for lack of money. NASA has long promised its first launch of Orion by March 2015, but aimed internally for September 2013 as a launch date. Now it's aiming internally for September 2014.

"The funding over the next two years became too tight for us, so I had to adjust the schedule for that," Hanley said.

NASA plans to land astronauts on the moon by 2020.