- Press Release
- Jan 28, 2023
NASA’s Response to SpaceX’s June 2015 Launch Failure: Impacts on Commercial Resupply of the International Space Station
WHY WE PERFORMED THIS AUDIT
On June 28, 2015, just 2 minutes after liftoff, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation’s (SpaceX) seventh cargo resupply mission (SPX-7) to the International Space Station (ISS or Station) failed, destroying $118 million of NASA cargo, including an International Docking Adapter (Adapter) the Agency planned to use when it begins flying astronauts to the Station on commercial vehicles. In the aftermath of the failure, SpaceX suspended resupply missions pending completion of an investigation into its cause, relicensing of its launch vehicle by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and acceptance by NASA of the company’s corrective actions.
SPX-7 was the second commercial resupply mission failure in an 8-month period. In October 2014, Orbital ATK’s (Orbital) third resupply mission crashed near the launch pad, destroying the company’s rocket and capsule as well as $51 million of NASA cargo. SpaceX and Orbital have fixed-price cargo resupply contracts worth a maximum value of $3.1 billion each.
In light of these events and because, to date, SpaceX and Orbital are the only two U.S. companies transporting supplies to the Station, we examined NASA’s response to the SpaceX failure and its impact on commercial resupply of the ISS. As part of this review, we assessed the technical and operational risks of SpaceX’s plans for resuming resupply missions, NASA’s efforts to reduce the financial and other risks associated with its contract with SpaceX, and the procedures for investigating the cause of the failure. We also reviewed relevant policies, regulations, and procedures; interviewed NASA, SpaceX, and other officials; and conducted site visits at SpaceX headquarters and the Johnson Space Center.
WHAT WE FOUND
Due to the loss of SPX-7 and the shift of SpaceX’s eighth resupply mission into 2016, approximately 3.48 metric tons (3,480 kilograms [kg]) of pressurized cargo scheduled for delivery in fiscal year (FY) 2015 did not arrive on the Station. NASA was able to absorb this loss because increased packing efficiencies and high cargo densities enabled transport of an additional 746 kg of upmass on two other SpaceX cargo missions and a Japanese cargo flight. In addition, the Russian space agency carried an additional 100 kg of pressurized upmass for NASA over six different flights. These measures reduced the total upmass shortfall from 3.48 metric tons to 2.63 metric tons (2,630 kg). Furthermore, the SpaceX and Orbital mission failures have led to a compressed launch schedule in FYs 2016 and 2017, with 11 cargo resupply missions, 7 Russian cargo missions, and 1 Japanese cargo mission now scheduled to arrive at the Station. In mid-2014, NASA astronauts were spending as much as 44 hours a week on research and related activities. While program officials stated that the number of research hours will not fall below the 35-hour/week minimum, the total time devoted to research may decrease from 2014 levels as astronauts take time to receive, unpack, and repack all of these vehicles.
The most significant item lost during the SPX-7 mission was the first of two Docking Adapters necessary to support upcoming commercial crew missions. Although NASA had planned to have two Adapters installed on the Station before the first commercial crew demonstration mission scheduled for May 2017, it is now likely there will be only one installed in time for these missions. Having only one Adapter means that a commercial crew vehicle will not be able to dock with the ISS if technical issues arise with the single available docking port. ISS Program officials stated that they plan to have the replacement Adapter installed before regular commercial crew rotations begin. We found NASA is effectively managing its commercial resupply contract with SpaceX to reduce cost and financial risk. The Agency has taken advantage of multiple mission pricing discounts and negotiated equitable adjustments of significant value to the Agency. In addition, following the SPX-7 failure NASA negotiated significant consideration in the form of Adapter hardware, integration services, manifest flexibility, and discounted mission prices for the SPX-16 through SPX-20 resupply missions. However, we also found that for the first seven cargo missions NASA did not fully utilize the unpressurized cargo space available in the Dragon 1 capsule’s trunk, averaging 423 kg for SPX-3 through SPX-7 even though the trunk is capable of carrying more. The ISS Program noted that unpressurized payloads depend on manifest priority, payload availability, and mission risk, and acknowledged it struggled to fully utilize this space on early missions, but as of June 2016 the Agency’s cargo manifests show full trunks on all future SpaceX cargo resupply missions.
Finally, the ISS Program adopted a tailored risk management approach for commercial cargo launches that deviated from existing procedures for evaluating launch risks. In practice, NASA has treated all commercial resupply missions as the lowest level risk classification irrespective of a mission’s value and relies primarily on its commercial partners (SpaceX and Orbital) to evaluate and mitigate launch risks. As a result, risk mitigation procedures are not consistently employed and the subjective launch ratings the Agency uses provide insufficient information to NASA management concerning actual launch risks. In addition, NASA does not have an official, coordinated, and consistent mishap investigation policy for commercial resupply launches, which could affect its ability to determine the root cause of a launch failure and implement corrective actions.
WHAT WE RECOMMEND
In order to maintain the efficacy of the ISS and ensure delivery of cargo in a timely and affordable manner, we recommend the Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations ensure the ISS Program (1) incorporates the risk of limited availability of the Adapter into risk management processes; (2) continues to refine the unpressurized upmass manifesting process and considers preparing alternative unpressurized upmass payloads in the event scheduled payloads cannot be launched; (3) quantifies overall mission risk ratings and communicates the risks for upcoming launches early and in coordination with varying levels of engineering and management; and (4) reviews all investigation authorities and plans during commercial launches with NASA payloads to ensure they are standardized. To clarify the division of roles and responsibilities in the event of a mission failure, we recommend the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, in conjunction with ISS Program officials, (5) improve coordination with other Federal agencies involved in commercial space and (6) update NASA procedures to include commercial space launches with NASA payloads in official mishap policies.
In response to a draft of our report, the Associate Administrator concurred or partially concurred with five of our recommendations and described corrective actions the Agency has taken or will take to address them. Those recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions. NASA did not concur with our recommendation to quantify overall mission risk ratings and communicate the risks for upcoming launches. Therefore, the recommendation is unresolved pending further discussion with Agency officials.