Tri-Agency Working Group Focuses on Inter-Organization Cooperation
The Tri-Agency Working Group — made up of NASA (specifically the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — exists so that each organization can learn how the others handle mishaps within their organizations and how they could all work together on an investigation, should the need arise. At a meeting this September, the group expanded to become the Quad-Agency Working Group with the official addition of the U.S. Air Force.
The FAA initiated the group back in 2010 to run mishap scenarios, get input from other organizations doing FAA-like launches, and learn how these organizations handled similar situations. During simulations, members take a launch and recovery scenario and explore how different incidents or circumstances would play out — for example, what would happen if a spacecraft destructed during launch?
“It’s catastrophic event practice without the actual catastrophic event taking place,” said Gerry Schumann, NASA’s chair for the group. “We go through each group participating and what each responsibility would be. Are they [the organization] appropriately covered? Do we need to change those responsibilities or improve on them?”
Members soon realized the group provided an opportunity to look at other types of launch and recovery issues, so they expanded the scope of the group to include NASA commercial launches, and eventually regular (non-government) commercial launches. With NASA’s International Space Station resupply launches now being handled by commercial companies, the group needed a way to explain how the organizations would work together to investigate a mishap, which led to the development of the tri-chart.
“It’s a chart that we can develop and give to senior management at all of the agencies that tells them who would lead an investigation if there was an accident,” explained Schumann.
More formally, the group is working to develop a policy on how to actively work together on a mishap investigation. For example, if there was an FAA-licensed launch, and something happened within the range area, the Air Force would be involved and the NTSB would serve as an independent authority on the investigation. Developing such policy has been on NASA’s radar for a number of years now, since first initiated by former Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) Bryan O’Connor.
In support of the policy, the group is reviewing everything from medical to legal aspects. In September, members discussed civilian hospital support for accidents that required local medical treatment. Specifically, they looked at support for a launch of a crewed vehicle and determined that the Department of Defense would validate East Coast care facilities to ensure adequate support is in place. In addition, group members are verifying that the policy includes the correct interpretation of the current Space Act Agreement with regards to how to handle human remains. Armed services’ forensic pathologists from the Army and Air Force participated in September’s meeting to address this aspect, as the people currently designated with this responsibility.
Members of the working group are developing a Memorandum of Agreement to lay the groundwork for how the organizations will coordinate with a goal of establishing a policy prior to NASA’s first crewed commercial launch in 2017. The group, which holds monthly telecoms, will next meet face-to-face at Kennedy Space Center Jan. 20-21.