News

18 September 1997

TEXT: NASA INSPECTOR GENERAL DISCUSSES MIR SPACE STATION

(Statement to House Committee on Science about safety) (2120)



Washington -- Roberta L. Gross, inspector general at the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration, questioned whether NASA "has
adequate processes and procedures to assess the risks versus the
benefits" of participating in the Russian Mir Space Station program.


Gross testified before the House Committee on Science September 18 at
a hearing on the safety of the Mir Space Station. She noted that
recent events aboard Mir, including a fire and the collision with the
spacecraft Progress, "have heightened concerns about NASA's continued
involvement in the Mir space missions."


Mir is inherently riskier than other human space flight programs for
NASA astronauts, Gross said, due to factors such as "NASA's lack of
baseline information about Mir's systems and operating environment,"
language and cultural differences, differences in Russian and U.S.
approaches to record-keeping and other procedures, and "telemetry
limitations which curtail contact with the astronaut on board the
Mir."


Furthermore, Gross said, "NASA began the Shuttle-Mir program without
benefit of a rigorous safety analysis or risk assessment of the
program. This decision was based on several factors: lack of
documentation by the Russians, the considerable cost and time needed
to recreate the baseline information, and the reluctance of the
Russians to share proprietary information."


Since "the risk level associated with Mir operations appears to have
increased" in recent months, Gross said, "we have raised for public
consideration the question as to whether the current structures and
processes for conducting risk assessment in the Mir Phase I program
should be reorganized."


Following is the text of the inspector general's statement:



(Begin text)



Statement of Roberta L. Gross

Inspector General

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

before the Committee on Science

House of Representatives



Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee.



I am pleased to be here today to discuss issues related to the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) participation
in the Russian Mir Space Station Program. On July 11, 1997, the
Honorable George E. Brown, Jr., and you requested that my office
assess NASA's participation in this endeavor. Specifically, you asked
my office to address: (1) the suitability of Russia's Mir space
station for habitation by U.S. astronauts, (2) research productivity
on board the Mir, and (3) cost effectiveness of continued NASA
involvement in the Mir space station program. Recent events on the Mir
-- the fire on February 23, 1997, and the collision with the
spacecraft Progress in June 1997 -- have heightened concerns about
NASA's continued involvement in the Mir space missions. Thus, we
forwarded to you a brief overview of some of the risks that the Agency
must assess against the benefits it hopes to achieve in this program.
We explained that time constraints prevented our providing definitive
answers to the specific questions you posed. I would like to have that
letter and appendices entered into the record.


I am not questioning whether astronaut participation aboard the Mir
space station is risky -- of course it is. Human space exploration is
inherently risky. The issue I am addressing in my written testimony is
whether NASA has adequate processes and procedures to assess the risks
versus the benefits of participating in this program. I have
previously discussed some of my concerns with the Administrator. At
his direction, the Agency will be making some responsive changes.


My testimony should not be viewed as minimizing important scientific
or technical gains that the United States has achieved through its
participation during Phase I on the Mir space station. There have been
critical lessons learned from working with the Russians that will
impact on the operation of the International Space Station (ISS).
These gains include insight into engineering, scientific, and human
factor issues which NASA and its partners are applying to Phases II
and III of the ISS. However, the American public has a right to expect
important and meaningful results. NASA is investing sizable resources
directly through its 4-year, $471 million dollar contract and through
other resources applied to Russian-U.S. space programs (that is,
Shuttle transport of supplies, equipment, and crew to and from the
Mir).


Nevertheless, the recent cluster of accidents, mishaps, and serious
problems on the Mir raise an obvious question -- has NASA implemented
appropriate oversight mechanisms, procedures, and controls to
objectively and adequately assess the risks of continued astronaut
flights aboard the Mir? Clearly, there are other important questions
for the Agency to answer about the program. These include: the cause
of the fire on board the Mir in February 1997, and the Progress
collision in June 1997; the risk of future ethylene glycol leaks and
their effect on astronaut health; the availability of crew, power,
equipment, and proper environmental conditions on the Mir to conduct
further meaningful science experiments; the proper training for the
astronauts, including some basic training in the operation of the
Soyuz (the "life boat" to be used by the crew in case of a
life-threatening event or the premature termination of a flight, for
example, health needs). I have briefly addressed these issues in my
letter to the Chair and Representative Brown of this Committee.


NASA is fully aware that recent events have raised safety and
reliability concerns regarding Mir. For example, in his Mir Safety
Status Briefing of April 3, 1997, for the Office of Space Flight
Management Board, Astronaut Frank Culbertson, the NASA Shuttle-Mir
Program Manager, identified many of the same problems we highlighted.
He included the Elektron oxygen generator failures, the thermal
control system leaks (which cause ethylene glycol leaks into the air
and water on board Mir), the reduced availability of spares, and
supplier and subcontractor difficulties. The recent flight readiness
reviews reflect greater involvement by the United States in the Mir
flight decisions for the astronauts. Nonetheless, we raise the
question, does the assessment process need a major shift by increasing
the oversight by NASA Headquarters?


NASA has three mechanisms for assessing its participation on the Mir
flights: (1) the NASA Shuttle-Mir Program Manager (Frank Culbertson)
conducts internal safety reviews, (2) the NASA Associate Administrator
for Safety and Mission Assurance also conducts safety reviews, and (3)
an external team led by Lieutenant General Tom Stafford, a former
astronaut, reviews safety and operational readiness.


As I stated previously, because of time constraints, we have not
evaluated the effectiveness of these mechanisms. Regardless, both
current and former NASA employees question the adequacy of the
assessment process. Their concerns fall into three main categories:
(1) the chilling impact on free discussion and criticism caused by the
pivotal role of the Johnson Space Center (JSC) for the human space
program, (2) the lack of independence of the Stafford team due to its
perceived ties to the JSC Center Director, (3) and the reduced level
of risk assessment performed because of the overriding goal to
continue participation in the U.S.-Russian partnership. Some of those
employees have also said that they feel it would jeopardize their
careers to be frank in their opinions, observations, and assessments
of the Mir program. These remarks were made by even those employees
who support the mission and characterize it as being safe. In a human
space program, free and open communication is an essential component.


JSC's pivotal role reflects NASA's implementation of its strategic
plan. The policy and oversight for the human space flight program
resides with various Associate Administrators at Headquarters,
including the Associate Administrator for Space Flight, for Safety and
Mission Assurance, and for Life and Microgravity Sciences and
Applications (who is also the Chief Medical Officer). The strategic
plan concentrates major responsibility for the implementation of the
human space program at JSC. It is the Lead Center for Space
Operations, Phase I Mir, ISS, Space Shuttle, Advanced Human Support
Technology, Biomedical Research and Countermeasures, and Gravitational
Biology and Ecology. The following JSC offices (among others) play key
roles in the Phase I human space program: the Flight Crew Operations
Directorate; the Astronaut Office; the Office of the Manager, Phase I
Program; the local Safety, Reliability, and Quality Assurance Office;
and the Medical Science Division.


The ISS and, in particular, Phase I Mir space station program, is a
different paradigm for NASA regarding safety and risk assessment. This
paradigm poses increased risks for the astronauts in Phase I because
of various factors. These include: NASA's lack of baseline information
about Mir's systems and operating environment; the learning curve
associated with working with the Russian government (for example,
language and cultural differences); different approaches to
assessments, protocols, documentation, and record-keeping; differences
in working under public scrutiny; and telemetry limitations which
curtail contact with the astronaut on board the Mir.


NASA began the Shuttle-Mir program without benefit of a rigorous
safety analysis or risk assessment of the program. This decision was
based on several factors: lack of documentation by the Russians, the
considerable cost and time needed to recreate the baseline
information, and the reluctance of the Russians to share proprietary
information. The Agency had to make a decision as to whether it wanted
to begin a long duration flight mission program so as to apply the
lessons learned to Phases II and III of the ISS. Based on the
historically safe performance of Mir operations, NASA agreed to
participate in the program. The Phase I baseline safety concept was
that each partner would be responsible for the safety and flight
readiness certification of its own vehicles.


We believe that because of the different risk assumptions in the ISS
program, particularly the Mir-Phase I program, the Agency should
seriously consider whether the concentration of program responsibility
at JSC provides sufficient checks and balances to ensure adequate
program assessments. Are there proper checks and balances when JSC has
major implementation responsibilities for the Phase I program, has a
major voice in the selection of astronauts for the limited flight
opportunities, and oversees both the astronaut medical program and the
local safety, reliability, and quality assurance office? Will
astronauts be candid about their assessments, opinions, and
observations if they perceive that the price of candor is to risk
their participation in flight opportunities? Will medical and safety
risk assessments be properly considered and presented when those
officials report to the Center Director who is responsible for
operation of the program? Instead of the current arrangements, should
the astronaut medical office and the safety, reliability, and quality
assurance officials as well as the astronauts be located at JSC but
report to Headquarters officials? This arrangement would better ensure
their independence and serve as a check and balance to the program
implementation focus of JSC. In other words, should the Associate
Administrators for Space Flight, for Safety and Mission Assurance, and
the Chief Medical Officer be given greater oversight responsibilities
for the program?


More than a decade ago, NASA went through a painful examination as to
the cause of the crew's death in the Challenger accident on January
28, 1986. Two recommendations from the "Report of the Presidential
Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident" (referred to as
the Rogers' Commission Report) may have some application to the
current situation. The Rogers' Commission strongly endorsed the need
for a strong, central safety, reliability, and quality assurance
function. It also recommended that NASA needed to create a climate
which would improve internal communications. The report suggested that
the Agency should take energetic steps by making changes in personnel,
organization, or indoctrination (in the context of Marshall Space
Flight Center's tendency toward management isolation). (See Rogers'
Commission Report, Recommendations IV and V, Volume I, p.199)


I want to underscore -- I am raising these issues as concerns. We have
not conducted a systematic evaluation of NASA's risk assessment
procedures. Instead, we have spent these last few months trying to
gain insight of NASA's assessment efforts both here and in Russia. As
a result, we believe that in the context of the different paradigm of
the ISS program, particularly Phase I, NASA should carefully reassess
the current implementation of its strategic plan as it applies to the
current oversight role of NASA Headquarters.


Conclusion:



When the Shuttle-Mir program began, NASA accepted the basic safety of
the Mir based upon historically safe operations. However, in recent
months the risk level associated with Mir operations appears to have
increased. We have raised for public consideration the question as to
whether the current structures and processes for conducting risk
assessment in the Mir Phase I program should be reorganized. Does this
Russian-U.S. partnership require increased Headquarters oversight?


This concludes my prepared statement, Mr. Chairman. I would be happy
to respond to any questions you or members of the committee may have
at this time.


(End text)