NASA’s Manned Mars Mission Safety Questioned By Official Report

NASA wants to send a manned mission to Mars by the 2030s, but a new report from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) calls into question the safety of both the launch vehicle and the spacecraft that would carry the first astronauts to the red planet. The report criticizes NASA’s plan for being too vague and raises concerns about risk accretion due to poor communication standards within the agency.

According to Wired, the main issue raised by the report relates to a concept known as accretion of risk, which can cause a situation to become significantly more dangerous due to a breakdown in communication or inadequate concern over multiple small risk factors. The example given by Wired involves a short road trip, where the driver notices that the tires are worn, but assumes that won’t be a problem, as the vehicle is equipped with a spare. At the same time, one of the passengers notices the spare tire is flat while packing, but doesn’t say anything as they assume the other tires to be in good condition.

nasa antares failure safety
In that example, the vehicle is assumed safe by both parties, but the “accretion of risk” between the worn tires and flat spare mean that it actually isn’t safe. And according to the recent report from ASAP, NASA has the same type of problem going on with its upcoming manned mission to Mars. In fact, the report states that ASAP has brought up this issue in the past and saw no improvements in the situation.

“Despite the ASAP’s long-standing recommendation, NASA is not clearly and transparently communicating the recognition of the accreted risk, its impact to overall
safety, and the rationale of why the increased risk is acceptable. This leaves the ASAP uncertain as to whether this accretion of risk is prudent or not. In some situations, NASA has characterized the changes as negligible and portrayed them as necessary and prudent actions that must be taken to maintain a schedule that appears to us to be an overly restrictive and internally imposed constraint.”

Wired reports that James Bagian, a former astronaut who sits on the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, suggested that a lack of communication could create a “ripple effect” in risk accretion.

“Does one hand know what the other is doing?” James Bagian asked. “If everyone doesn’t understand all the assumptions, and they use that as a foundation to make a decision, that can have a ripple effect.”

According to Popular Science, the report also suggests that going back to the moon before striking off for Mars may be prudent, as it is “unclear how NASA will develop low-gravity surface experience and technology without lunar surface experience.”

international space station
The report also suggests that continued funding of the International Space Station, currently planned to continue through 2024, could prevent sufficient funding for a safe, successful mission to Mars.

“Not having to pay for ISS operations presumably would free up several billion dollars per year that could then be devoted to activities in cislunar space and beyond. However,
some NASA managers (as well as industry partners) have spoken publicly about the benefits of continuing to operate the ISS until 2028, or even later. While there may be benefits from such a plan, unless NASA were to be given a large increase in its appropriations, it is possible that continuing the ISS past 2024 may delay the Journey to Mars due to limited funding.”

Depending on which launch schedule NASA decides to stick with, a test flight could launch in 2018, and the first human spaceflight in the planned manned mission to mars could take place in either 2021 or 2023, with the intention of putting astronauts in Mars orbit by the mid-2030s. A lot could change between now and then, in terms of politics, funding, and technology, but the ASAP report argues that if NASA doesn’t change its approach to risk accretion, the entire project could be in danger.

[Photo by Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA via AP]