NASA's aviation safety research falls short, review says

Congress ordered a review of NASA's aviation safety work and found room for improvement.
Written by Deborah Gage, Contributor

One of NASA's biggest jobs is to advance our knowledge of aviation safety, but the agency isn't using its limited resources as well as it could, according to a review released this week by the National Research Council.

The review was ordered by Congress and is likely to add to the uncertainty over NASA's funding and its general direction (see John's post on NASA uncertainty here), although negligence by NASA is not an issue -- at least not so far.

Instead, the reviewers criticize the space agency for being too unwieldy and too ingrown at a time when advances in technology should require NASA to move faster and work more closely with universities, the private sector and other government agencies besides the FAA.

NASA's Aviation Safety Program was formed 10 years ago, after the Gore Commission challenged both the federal government and the aviation industry to cut accident rates by 80 percent. (Remember the crashes of TWA Flight 800 and ValuJet Flight 592, which killed all 330 people aboard?)

So the issues NASA is looking at include ways to predict cracks, joint degradation and other problems as aircraft age; to create a more intelligent flight deck that combines humans and automated agents; to anticipate how aircraft behave when they're damaged and to automatically detect and avoid problems like engine icing that can cause crashes.

At the same time, the FAA's massive overhaul of the National Airspace System, called NextGen, which is due to start in 2012, is expected to bring big changes in how pilots and planes work. So NASA has a full plate.

From the review:

Too few resources are devoted to "critical safety research and...stimulating innovation. Connections with the FAA, other federal agencies and the aviation community are varied but not deep...Internal coordination of and collaboration on safety research need improvement (to avoid) stovepiping of research that risks system-level safety solutions not being explored and safety hazards not being addressed that arise from interactions among aviation system elements...Demands for safety-assured technologies and procedures can conflict with NASA's emphasis on long-range, foundational research."

The reviewers also said they didn't always understand why NASA chooses certain projects -- that the agency tends to rely too much on the expertise of the people it has in-house, at the risk of neglecting projects it should be working on.

They call for more reviews of NASA's Aviation Safety Program by outside experts like the FAA and a clearer, more objective way to pick research projects.

(The top picture shows some of the wreckage of TWA Flight 800 in a hangar at Calverton Executive Airpark. The second picture is an artist's conception of the last moments of ValuJet Flight 592.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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