Space risk management

International Space Law

Author: Iván Sermanoukian

First of all, in order to analyse what Risk Management in space is, it is crucial to know the definition of risk.

A risk is an uncertain event that influences the success of the project objectives. It can either be a single event or a series of occurrences that lead to the current project status. Overall, it is relevant to distinguish between threats, which can cause an adverse action to the project objectives, and opportunities, which might positively impact the project.

As a result, risk management is in charge of identifying, evaluating, prioritising and controlling the uncertainties that might arise, in order to enhance the ability of the project to overcome difficulties while taking advantage of opportunities, to improve the possibility of the project to succeed in a competitive world.

One key aspect to be taken into consideration is the risk assessment from the cost point of view

For instance, in the statement of work, a cost is given, but the manager always requires a sum of money to be allocated for uncertain events.

Threats can either be avoided altogether, for instance, by not participating in a particular high-risk business area, or reduced with adequate built-in risk control and containment measures from the start. Similarly, opportunities can be enhanced by staying up-to-day with current technological advancements or exploited to earn some profit.

Both threats and opportunities can be accepted, which means periodically re-assessing risks of ongoing processes as a standard feature of the project’s operations, modifying mitigation measures, or transferring to an external branch or agency that will deal with it more appropriately.

For both positive and negative outcomes, depending on the origin of the risk, they can be classified as inherent, when an original risk is considered, residual, when the initial risk has been tackled but other reduced risks remain, or secondary, which is newly created as a result of the response to the original risk.

Risk ownership is divided among the owner and the actionee. While the owner essentially knows what the risks are and controls that the company is able to solve them, the actionees are the ones that address a specific risk.

In a space mission, a risk might be a potential failure that can occur during the design, build, transportation, launch or operation phases of a spacecraft in orbit. During the period until it is launched, a failure can result in considerable extra costs, schedule delays and a potential loss of a critical function of the spacecraft.

The prime management standard of the European Cooperation for Space Standardization (ECSS) initiative, ECSS-M-00, places risk management in a crucial position among the standards defining management practices.

The risk management process for the space industry might use risk diagrams and scales such as the following to monitor the probability of a risk scenario and their severity in order to act accordingly:

The risk management process for the space industry
The risk management process for the space industry

In risks related to technology, a typical scenario is related to some challenges that require more time to provide a solution. As a result, two options can be selected: either not having the technology on time, which is a more significant risk, or mitigating the threat by giving more time to solve the problem. In this case, the time budget to solve the risk creates a secondary risk because in case the technology is not delivered on time, the extra time which does not fit the schedule will also increase costs, possibly requiring a more considerable investment.

With risks related to cost and time, a bit lesser with other types of risk, the roles and the responsibilities play an essential part. It has to be clear whose fault it is that more money or resources are needed whenever something occurs.

According to NASA Technical Reports, NASA is responsible for establishing risk management policies, goals, and processes for the ISS.

These actions are implemented by the ISS prime contractors and the international partners (Canada, Japan, Russia, and the member nations of the European Space Agency)

The teams evaluate risks in terms of likelihood and consequences and qualitatively rank them on a relative scale matrix similar to the one in Fig. 2. Then, the consequences can be technical or affect the ISS schedule or cost. Typically, cost and schedule risks dominate the current list of risks and are considered the more restricting.

The ISS program currently ranks the risk of meteoroid and orbital debris impacts as one of the top 15 risks to the ISS program, being the sixth risk in their ranking directly related to meteoroids and debris. Structural safety hazards are reduced with the use of safety factors, ground tests and materials qualification and control, among others.

The approach provides a systematic framework that forces management individuals to evaluate risks regularly and to take action, if necessary, to mitigate critical risks. It encourages the continuous identification of new risks with a transparent review and approval path.

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