Quad-Agency Working Group Builds Beneficial Relationships Between Federal Organizations
Representatives from NASA, the Department of the Air Force (DAF), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) form the Quad-Agency Working Group, which meets to build relationships between the organizations, allow them to learn how the others handle mishaps within their organizations and how they can work together on an investigation, should the need arise. The agencies also share best practices.
The working group — made official with the Quad-Agency Charter in 2017 — has proven beneficial for all involved, and the tight relationships are only becoming more relevant as launch rates increase with the introduction of commercial and private spaceflight.
“For me [the biggest benefit of the group] is that you have experienced professionals that specifically have been in the mishap investigation realm on commercial and U.S. government-sponsored endeavors that really compliment what we [NASA] do and vice versa,” said Ken O’Connor, NASA’s Quad-Agency Working Group cochair. “Because we’re moving into this new era of commercialization and private astronaut missions, our oversight and insight responsibilities will have to adapt and will require coordination with external customers and partners. Our Commercial Crew Program does an excellent job of ensuring Operational Safety. We’re gaining experience from the FAA who’s done this for a few years and NTSB who has done a number of high-visibility events. The DAF has quite a lot of experience with manned and unmanned endeavors too. So, they are all a good bridge for us [NASA] going toward private flight.”
And the other organizations are learning from NASA too:
“I can say that I have benefited greatly from the interactions with the multitude of NASA personnel,” said Joe Sedor, NTSB’s cochair for the working group. “I feel it’s important that we learn as much as possible from NASA’s 50 plus years of experience; all future NTSB mishap investigations will be that much better because of the interaction and the knowledge we’ve gained from NASA taking part in the Quad-Agency [Working Group].”
“The industry has fortunately had relatively few mishaps on the commercial space side of things, but with the substantial increase in launches and reentries, there will likely be more mishaps,” Sedor continued. “These ongoing discussions between our four agencies will ensure smooth and efficient investigations when major mishaps occur. The biggest challenge is the speed of the growth of the industry; the industry is growing so quickly, there are challenges with regards to ensuring safety issues are addressed appropriately.”
As with most things, preparation in the world of mishap investigations is key, especially with complex, possibly multi-organization investigations.
“A lot of it [the group] has to do with just understanding what each agency would be doing in the event of a mishap — what the purpose of each agency is — and to actually build the relationships between all safety personnel within the agencies, because when a mishap occurs, it’s a very chaotic environment and you have to have the strong relationships already built in order to work efficiently together,” explained Sedor.
To support the mutual understanding of responsibilities, NASA coordinates with the other organizations to develop trifolds outlining responsibilities for various launch types.
“These come in handy in explaining how roles shift under different launch and mishap scenarios, especially with leadership,” said O’Connor.
In addition, the organizations “practice” how these roles would function during complex exercises, a preparatory method the FAA finds especially useful:
“Participation in the Quad-Agency Working Group continues to be very beneficial for the FAA,” said Jesse Hanson, FAA’s cochair for the working group. “The working group provides a venue for sharing mishap-related lessons learned and best practices, providing program and policy updates, seeking group member input and advice, etc. Over the years, I’ve developed close working relationships with our NASA, NTSB and Space Force partners, allowing effective collaboration in preparation for and in response to commercial space transportation mishaps. For example, in preparation for recent human spaceflight launches, both the FAA and NASA hosted mishap tabletop exercises involving participation from working group members. These types of exercises clarify roles and responsibilities between government agencies and how we support one another, whether it is an FAA-licensed launch, a NASA launch, or a DoD [Department of Defense] launch; ensure we have effective notification and coordination processes in place; and perhaps most importantly, identify any areas where we can make improvements to current processes and procedures. The FAA continues to see a record number of launches per year. As the launch rates increases, this collaboration becomes even more important to ensure we are prepared to respond effectively in the event of a mishap.”
According to John Chris Matchett, DAF deputy cochair, other benefits include tracking some of the bigger safety issues facing the organizations, sharing best practices and working to develop a consistent government perspective on launch activities.
“[We’re trying to give industry a consistent governmental perspective on the safety around launch,” said Matchett. “Whether they are doing a launch supporting DoD or it’s an FAA-licensed launch or if it’s for NASA, [our goal is] it’s seamless — you’re getting the same process and steps for launch regardless of what agency it is.”
Consistency comes into play when writing policy for the agencies as well.
“We don’t want to write policy that is 180 degrees different from FAA [for example], so we invite them to sit on our working groups when we’re developing or rewriting the policy so we’re all reading from the same sheet of music,” said Mark “Nitro” Glissman, DAF cochair for the working group.
Through the years of working together, the working group members have formed personal relationships that have proven beneficial as well, as they increase communications between the organizations and help keep everyone on the same page.
“FAA will let NASA know there’s a commercial launch, just for awareness,” said O’Connor. “People assume if something goes wrong with a launch, NASA is involved, but we may not be, so the awareness is helpful. There’s no formal process requiring them to keep us in the loop, but because of these relationships I can keep NASA management ‘in the know’ with regards to other organizations’ operations.”
These relationships have led to insight and access into each other’s worlds as well.
“We coordinate with each other to be observers on each other’s mishaps so we can find common themes between different mishaps and also share those lessons learned between us and FAA, NASA and NTSB on how we actually do mishap investigations and the definitions we use,” said Glissman. “Like the FAA uses different definitions for mishaps and accidents and different dollar thresholds [for mishap definitions], so when we get together it clarifies a lot of things. We figure out where our streams cross and have a matrix to use when deciphering each other’s language. Also, a couple years ago or so, the NTSB was having trouble with observing one of the DAF mishaps out at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, and he [a working group member from NTSB] just picked up the phone and called me, so we have that easy access with each other to find out, ‘Hey, we have this mishap we want to observe, what’s the scoop?’ The connections are very useful; there’s a common connectivity between us.”