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Air Force safety also applies to space

by Maj. Justin White
Air Force Safety Center

7/18/2012 - KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- When it comes to safety in the Air Force, much of the focus on mishap prevention goes into preventing and investigating slips, trips and falls. Ground safety applies to every member, regardless of their primary duty, and all can benefit from practicing prescribed safety methods in their everyday lives.

However, many vital Department of Defense missions have recently come to rely heavily on a variety of capabilities provided by Air Force satellites. To help protect those assets, the Air Force Safety Center stood up the Space Safety Division in 2004. Given the U.S. public's high reliance on satellites for navigation, the high cost and relatively long timeline to build and launch satellites, it's vital that the American taxpayer and warfighter get as much useful life from these assets as possible.

The primary mission of the Space Safety Division is to enable full-spectrum combat space capabilities through mishap prevention. As the lead for Air Force space safety, the division is responsible for overseeing the safe development, operation and maintenance of Air Force space assets, to include ground-based systems. This includes coordination of space safety principles and policies among national and international space-faring entities.

But even with the best safety practices, mishaps occur from time to time. And when they happen with space assets, a significant amount of government time and taxpayer dollars are lost. In the last 10 years, there have been only three Class A space mishaps -- mishaps that have direct costs exceeding $2 million and/or directly caused a fatality. While none of those mishaps contributed to any deaths, they cost more than $24 million combined.

Space mishaps also create capability gaps caused by not having the satellite on orbit for use. Whether the lost capability is communication, surveillance or navigation, there are troops in the field counting on using these space assets. Hence, in addition to costing dollars, space mishaps greatly degrade all missions that had planned to use that satellite.

One very real hazard to satellites is space debris. With more and more countries getting into the space-faring arena, it's only natural that greater numbers of satellites and pieces of space debris have remained on orbit. There are currently more than 22,000 items at least the size of a softball being tracked. Sometimes owners of two live satellites can deconflict their operations to prevent a possible collision. But when two pieces of debris or dead satellites are headed for each other, there is little that can be done. When collisions create more debris, there's even more potential for hazards.

With the wide variety of hazards to satellites and other space systems, the Space Safety Division focuses on mishap prevention through a variety of ways. For example, the division teaches a space-centric portion of the Board President, Chief of Safety and Mishap Investigation Non-Aviation courses conducted at the safety center. This training provides space professionals the tools needed to prevent mishaps and, in the event of a mishap, identify what happened and why it happened.

The division is also the office of primary responsibility for Air Force Instruction 91-217, Space Safety and Mishap Prevention Program, and performs all necessary reviews, updates and re-writes. In order to achieve buy in from their customers, they gather recommendations for edits from the space acquisition, launch, operations and research units, as they will ultimately have to follow this regulation.

Finally, with consistent interaction and periodic staff assistance visits, the division develops rapport with field units and guides them to safely execute their mission.

When a mishap occurs, the Space Safety Division provides independent guidance to the investigation board in accordance with Air Force Manual 91-222, Space Safety Investigation and Reports. Then, the Air Force Safety Automated System database tracks all mishap findings and recommendations, ideally preventing future occurrences of similar accidents. The division works with the mishap organization to ensure they fix any deficiencies that may have contributed to the mishap.

Space mishaps are relatively rare, but very expensive in terms of dollars, time and capabilities lost. It's important that the Space Safety Division provide independent oversight of the space mission, while ensuring the safest possible use of space assets from cradle to grave.

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