WASHINGTON — A NASA safety panel, while congratulating the agency on a successful Artemis 1 mission, said it was worried about the agency’s safety culture and workforce as it prepares for the first crewed Artemis flight.
The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, in its annual report issued earlier this month, praised NASA for a successful Artemis 1 uncrewed test flight in late 2022. The mission, featuring the first launch of the Space Launch System rocket, sent the Orion spacecraft to the vicinity of the moon and back, splashing down three and a half weeks after liftoff.
“The historic launch 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 the overall NASA and supporting contractor workforce.”
However, later in the report the panel raised questions about the agency’s overall safety culture, particularly as it applies to the Artemis series of missions.
“The Panel is concerned that NASA’s concerted attention to a healthy safety culture may have diminished, leaving NASA vulnerable to the same flaws that contributed to previous failures. This concern was heightened by the circumstances surrounding NASA’s decision to scrub the Artemis I launch in early September,” it stated.
That was a reference to a problem during the second attempt to launch the Artemis 1 mission Sept. 3. NASA officials said at the time an “inadvertent overpressurization” of a liquid hydrogen line damaged a seal, causing a large leak of liquid hydrogen that scrubbed the launch. They speculated that human error caused the overpressurization.
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 that, in this case, could have put the vehicle and the launch pad at risk,” it stated. “The Panel has learned that this error was communicated in real time to the Launch Director, and then subsequently in internal and public forums, in a manner that was not up to the expectations set by the CAIB or by the recent ‘organizational silence’ training program.”
The report did not go into specifics about how the error communications failed to meet expectations. It called the incident an “important — but missed — opportunity” to demonstrate key behaviors, like ensuring it is safe for people to come forward when they make a mistake and that people can offer risk-related information “without fear of recrimination.”
“Whether this case example represents one unique moment of mere inattentiveness or a deep and pervasive weakness, it serves to remind NASA of the critical need to attend closely to the fundamental tenets of a healthy safety culture,” ASAP stated in the report.
ASAP also raised concerns about the agency’s workforce, including those involved with the Artemis missions. The long gap between Artemis 1 and Artemis 2, expected to launch no sooner than late 2024, could result in a loss of expertise, the panel warned.
“Of particular concern to the Panel is the potential for 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 sizable number of experienced workers may be retiring after Artemis I, impacting the resident knowledge base remaining to execute Artemis II,” the ASAP report stated.
The panel noted that “irregular cadence” of Artemis missions, and the changing nature of each mission, will pose a challenge even for an experienced workforce. “In every respect, each Artemis mission will be properly characterized as a test mission,” it stated. “Every Artemis mission will be wholly unique for the foreseeable future.”
At the panel’s most recent public meeting Feb. 9, shortly after the release of the report, committee members did not elaborate on the concerns in the report, but did reiterate their praise for the successful Artemis 1 mission.
“The preparation, execution and post-flight assessment of Artemis 1 is a great first step for the Artemis program,” William Bray, a member of ASAP, said. “It provides a great deal of learning and build up of important muscle memory that will be necessary for the execution and success of future flights as well as the overall long-term program.”
The team working on Artemis 2, he added, was building off the success of Artemis 1. “The panel looks forward to seeing that continued rigor, discipline and focus applied to that flight.”
Patricia Sanders, chair of the panel, offered a cautionary note. “When there is a potential for schedule pressure, we will continue to be vigilant relative to that schedule pressure not causing unwise or unsafe decisions relative to performance and safety and add risk of a different kind to the program.”