Space Safety

Jeff Foust has some good questions in preparation for today’s hearing:

* What would be the safety implications of terminating the government crew transportation system currently under development in favor of relying on as-yet-to-be-developed commercially provided crew transportation services? What would the government be able to do, if anything, to ensure that no reduction in planned safety levels occurred as a result?
* What do potential commercial crew transportation services providers consider to be an acceptable safety standard to which potential commercial providers must conform if their space transportation systems were to be chosen by NASA to carry its astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS? Would the same safety standard be used for non-NASA commercial human transportation missions?
* If a policy decision were made to require NASA to rely solely on commercial crew transfer services, which would have to meet NASA’s safety requirements to be considered for use by NASA astronauts, what impact would that have on the ability of emerging space companies to pursue innovation and design improvements made possible [as the industry has argued] by the accumulation of flight experience gained from commencing revenue operations unconstrained by a prior safety certification regime? Would it be in the interest of the emerging commercial orbital crew transportation industry to have to be reliant on the government as its primary/sole customer at this stage in its development?

The problem is, of course, that this will not be either an honest or informed discussion, because there are so many rent seekers involved. I was glad to see Patti stand up for commercial industry, though.

More hearing coverage and links over at Clark’s place.

[Update a few minutes later]

You’ll be as shocked as I am to learn that NASA (once again) lied to the Augustine panel and withheld information about Ares/Orion safety. Well, at least they’ve been honest about their costs. And schedule. Right?

I agree with Ray — this is Powerpoint engineering at its finest (which is to say, worst). I’ll be very interested to hear what Joe Fragola has to say about this at the hearing today.

[Mid-morning update]

Well, now we know what Fragola thinks:

Fragola says that Atlas 431 would likely not pass a safety review for crew missions since it uses solid strapon boosters.

OK, so strap-on solid boosters that have never had a failure, on a launcher with a clean record — unsafe. A giant solid first stage that has never served in that solitary role — safe. Got it.

[Update a few minutes later]

Another tweet from Jeff:

Gifford closing out hearing, thanks witnesses for “briliant” testimony. Says she sees no grounds for changing course based on safety.

Well, neither do I. The reasons for changing course is cost and schedule, not safety. In fact, I’d be happy with a system much less “safe” if it actually accomplishes useful things in space, which Ares never will, because it’s unaffordable.

[Update a few minutes later]

A lot more detail from Bobby Block over at the Orlando Sentinel:

Fragola said that the passage quoted by the Sentinel story from the Exploration Systems Architecture Study concluding that it would take at least seven flights (two test flights and five mission flights) before the Ares I and Orion crew capsule could to be deemed to be as safe as the shuttle referred to a more powerful configuration of Ares-Orion that used a liquid oxygen-methane engine and not the simpler lower performance configuration being designed today.

Of course, the very notion that one can know or even properly estimate the safety of a vehicle with so few flights under its belt remains absurd.

[Update late morning]

Clark Lindsey has what looks like a first-hand report.

[Late afternoon update]

NASA Watch has the prepared statements from the hearing.

5 thoughts on “Space Safety”

  1. I see two big problems with the claim that Ares I can be designed with a 1 in 2800 failure rate. First, the SRMs have a historical failure rate of somewhere around 1 in 200 to 1 in 400. Second, the flight rate is too low to insure the above failure rate.

    For example, a number of changes were made to the remaining Shuttles after the Columbia accident. How do we know that we didn’t introduce a failure mode with those changes? The answer is that we haven’t yet had another accident (or close call for that matter) in 16 launches. Even if we had introduced a 1 in 10 failure mode, we’d still have a roughly 19% chance of making it this far without accident.

    The point here is that a high flight rate finds these problems pretty fast. There are more flights per significant change.

  2. Rand,

    I was at the T&I hearing this morning and then went over to this Show Trial of commercial crew.

    A mutual friend put it well: Joe Fragola is the Michael Mann of human spaceflight safety data.

    – Jim

  3. Rand,

    I would like to add: a unitary srm with a no failures over many flights versus a large five segment solid with no history. Which would you chose as safe versus risky?

  4. A mutual friend put it well: Joe Fragola is the Michael Mann of human spaceflight safety data.

    Bumper Sticker on Fragola’s car: (Will Adjust Data For Food). Lying to Augustine was just a bonus!

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