Journal of Space Safety Engineering Publications

Jacob Keller, a CSEL MS student, recently in-press to be published paper in the Journal of Space Safety Engineering titled “Examining autonomous flight safety systems from a cognitive systems engineering perspective: Challenges, themes, and outlying risks”. The paper is co-authored by CSEL faculty member, Dr. Martijn IJtsma and the executive director of the Battelle Center for Science, Engineering, and Public Safety, Dr. Elizabeth Newton. The student-led research highlighted in this paper was in part sponsored by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).

You can view the paper [Here], and the paper’s abstract below.


Flight safety systems (FSS) act as a method to terminate off-nominal rocket launches which threaten public safety. Traditional FSS delegate decision authority to an experienced Missile Flight Control Officer (MFCO) tasked with flight termination decisions, observing multiple points of telemetry data in real-time to ensure nominal flight status. This study examines the engineering trade-offs, complexities, and pitfalls introduced by automating flight termination decision-making through autonomous flight safety systems (AFSS). We approach this problem from a cognitive systems engineering perspective, connecting aspects of AFSS to existing literature in human-machine teaming and resilience engineering. Based on information gathered from a series of semi-structured interviews with various subject matter experts (mission controllers, regulators, engineers, amongst others) and existing literature, we outline a list of four assumptions underlying AFSS operations: (1) The system is fully autonomous, (2) An exhaustive flight safety analysis has been performed, (3) The system will be able to respond appropriately to the world, and (4) MFCO expertise can be captured in (or translated to) software. Our findings highlight that, while the benefits of AFSS hold great promise for increasing the viability of commercial space operations, the automation of an irreversible, instantaneous, and complex decision-making task introduces significant challenges and risks. We propose directions for further research to minimize the likelihood of errant, expensive, and dangerous automated flight terminations.