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NASA needs new way to handle accident investigations, report says

The first crew of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft attends the roll out of the new Boeing Starliner spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on Nov. 21: Boeing Astronaut Chris Ferguson (l) and NASA Astronauts Mike Finke and Nicole Mann. Photo by Joe Marino-Bill Cantrell/UPI
The first crew of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft attends the roll out of the new Boeing Starliner spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on Nov. 21: Boeing Astronaut Chris Ferguson (l) and NASA Astronauts Mike Finke and Nicole Mann. Photo by Joe Marino-Bill Cantrell/UPI | License Photo

ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 7 (UPI) -- NASA needs new ways to investigate accidents that occur during human spaceflight when private companies like SpaceX and Boeing are launching astronauts, an agency watchdog said.

That recommendation was among those put forth in the federal Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel's annual report for 2019, released Tuesday.

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"As NASA approaches the resumption of launching humans on U.S. spacecraft, it is very important that the language in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 requiring a Presidential Commission for mishap investigations be reviewed and revised," the report said. "The best time for that to be accomplished is before a mishap occurs."

NASA expects to launch astronauts from Florida to the International Space Station in the first half of 2020. But the space agency is relying on SpaceX and Boeing to conduct those missions, aboard the Crew Dragon and Starliner capsules, respectively.

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In the past, NASA designed the Apollo capsules and the space shuttle, and contractors helped to build those vehicles with heavy NASA involvement. But under the new Commercial Crew Program, NASA contracts with SpaceX and Boeing for design and construction. The private companies have more influence and control over launches than before.

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NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted about the report Monday, but only briefly, noting that it "recognizes the considerable headway toward our human exploration objectives."

In response to questions about implementing the report, NASA said, "Only Congress can revise those requirements. NASA is working closely with Congress to make them aware of the potential issues associated with the mishap investigation procedures. ... NASA is hopeful that the procedures will be revised to reflect the current human space transportation environment."

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Specifically, the report calls for more clarification about "the level of vehicle damage requiring investigation, the temporal issues of when mission phases begin and end, and NASA's oversight role in mishap investigations conducted by its providers, as well as when the need for outside oversight is required."

The report offered several other recommendations, including the need for action to address "a burgeoning safety hazard" of meteorites and orbital debris that could damage spacecraft and the need to updates the agency's aging aircraft, especially the Super Guppy jet that transports large aerospace equipment.

Touching on planned Artemis moon missions, the report said the new deadline imposed by the Trump administration for a moon landing by 2024 "will stress the NASA community" and has the potential to impact risk management.

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"One of NASA's strengths is the unwillingness to give up when faced with a tough challenge; this strength could become a weakness if a management team establishes an unrealistic program," the report said.

The panel, established in 1968, includes retired military personnel, former NASA executives and experts in their fields ranging from aviation to medicine. Following the space shuttle shuttle Columbia accident, Congress required that the group submit an annual report to the NASA administrator and to Congress.

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