The Coming Train Wreck

…for commercial space. A warning from Wayne Hale:

NASA at its highest leadership level has committed to try to allow commercial space flight providers a great deal of flexibility and cost control. There are ways to do this which will not compromise safety in design or operation. But having NASA civil servants as the arbiters of whether or not thousands of requirements have been satisfied is not the way to accomplish neither safety nor cost efficiency.

So whether Commercial Space Flight gets $6 billion or $3 billion or $50 million, the entire effort is on the way to a train wreck.

NASA must change or this effort will fail.

No doubt. Part of the point of the new policy was to get NASA to change, but it’s going to be a very painful process, and there will be vicious guerilla warfare in the trenches. The draft requirements are just one of the skirmishes in that war. At some point, they will have to be revealed, to allow them to be properly critiqued before they become something more than draft. If NASA had a strong administrator, he would note that they will be signed off at the top, where the buck stops. But if NASA had a strong administrator, Ed Weiler wouldn’t still be in charge of SMD.

If the train wreck occurs, it will be NASA’s problem, though, not that of the commercial providers. There will be commercial human spaceflight, sooner or later. NASA can make it happen sooner, but they won’t be able to prevent it, and once everyone sees other people flying on SpaceX/ULA/Boeing/Whoever vehicles to Bigelow (and perhaps others’) facilities, it’s going to be impossible for NASA to get the billions some (either at NASA or on the Hill) will request for their own doomed programs, in the coming austere fiscal environment. There is only one way forward for human spaceflight, and that’s commercial providers.

[Update a few minutes later]

I should add that I am not surprised, of course, in any way by Wayne’s report.

23 thoughts on “The Coming Train Wreck”

  1. You have to wonder who is in charge of the ISS Crew Transportation and Services Requirements? In the past, Bolden has stated that he thought the commercial requirements would be along the lines of what they did with Soyuz.

    I wonder who we should voice our disappointment to? Maybe if there is enough outcry, NASA will revisit the requirements document.

  2. It is a little strange that a company like SpaceX that will spend $1-2 billion on developing their product is considered a fly by night operation with no ethics, accountability, expertise, or desire to succeed in the long term by some people at NASA.

  3. I’m reposting my comment from the Hale blog:

    I may be misinformed, but I am under the impression that the Space Shuttle does not meet NASA’s own human rating requirements and flies with waivers allowing it to do so.

    Could a similar process apply here? A company seeks and is granted waivers from certain requirements for its system?

  4. Someone said that this is due to the disconnect from HQ to a program office.

    However, Bolden has made, numerous times, a personal pledge that these commercial systems will be “safe”, due to the consternation of opponents of the whole notion. Perhaps he sees an exacting human rating requirements process as the means for meeting such a guarantee.

  5. As our host here has pointed out in the past, “man-rated” or “human-rated” generally means whatever NASA needs it to mean at the time. When a system they don’t like or want is proposed it gets shot down for not meeting their rigorous safety standards, but when a system they like comes up it somehow meets the same standards.

    For example, an EELV-launched capsule isn’t safe enough because it has a few “black” zones where a launch abort is impossible, but Orion/Stick is A-OK even though it has a “black” zone right after launch, and the Shuttle of course flies with no launch escape system.

  6. The boss says there will be a simple requirements document.
    The task of producing the simple document is delegated down the chain of command. Every little engineer in every little office puts in his 2c worth.
    But ,” he tells his supervisor. “What if my nut fails?” he says. “You could loose the whole vehicle.”
    The supervisor concedes the point.
    A line is added to the draft.
    The problem is there are a thousand nuts in NASA.

  7. The problem is there are a thousand nuts in NASA.

    Only a thousand? Moron – it’s more than a Shuttle TAL site.

  8. Hmm, bets that the STS-Shuttle could meet the requirements of this?

    Much less Ares 1/Orion, SLS, or even Apollo?

    Pretty much sounds a *hell* of a lot like ‘we have to pass it to figure out what’s in it’. 🙁

  9. Shuttle doesn’t meet NASA’s “requirements,” and neither (believe me) does Soyuz. You’ll never get an admission of that out of NASA or any of its defenders.

    I really, really like Fred Willett’s description of how things go. It doesn’t just happen at NASA, unfortunately. We’ll see just how successful the truly commercial effort is at resisting this BS.

  10. Well, let’s wait and see. We haven’t actually seen these documents for ourselves yet.

    It may well be that this is an insane back-door scheme aimed at invalidating all commercial crew proposals, or an equally preposterous attempt to define a flight vehicle just as if the commercial providers were building a spacecraft for NASA in the old procurement mode. Yes, those would be bad.

    OTOH, it might be NASA’s (possibly over-zealous) stab at creating some counterpart to the building codes and electrical standards that are commonplace in the civilian world. Truth is, most construction firms are accustomed to building structures from swimming pools to cathedrals that are subject to hundreds of pages of regulations and inspections by countless municipal agencies. They live with it.

  11. Good discussion here.

    Fred: great, short description of the process.

    Mike, the hundreds of pages of codes built over years of building hundreds of thousands of buildings, with a constant spiral if increasing regulation as each building disaster (or occasionally, someone seeing a potential disaster before it happened and getting a code changed) brought a new threat to light. What’s happening here is that the codes have been written based on the building of 3-5 buildings that never met the code. The whole process is enforced by a group of people with a built-in bias because they’d much rather be building the buildings than enforcing the code. Oh, and by the way they see themselves losing their jobs because of the change.

    I’ve thought since February that this new approach is a perfect Kennedy crisis mix of danger and opportunity, and the more I see the more I’m leaning towards the danger side for government spaceflight. Commercial spaceflight would be hobbled by this, but could still succeed if the government allows it.

  12. Second that, Rand. Commercial space flight is the future. NASA and our government now have the option to get on the train or get run over by it, to get with the new program, or be rendered irrelevant. I’m an optimist; I think NASA will get with the program. The trench warfare will indeed be painful, but the visionaries will win out.

  13. Tom Hill has gotten to the heart of the problem:

    “The whole process is enforced by a group of people with a built-in bias because they’d much rather be building the buildings than enforcing the code. Oh, and by the way they see themselves losing their jobs because of the change.”

    The whole idea of NASA being the buying agent for the government in space services while also continuing to harbor the ambition to be the developer and operator of LEO transportation is just nuts. It’s as if we detached NHTSA from the Department of Transportation and making it part of (government-owned) General Motors, and let it set the standards for Ford and Chrysler while awarding itself waivers.

    We need an organization separate from NASA, reporting separately to the President, with a competent space engineering analytical capability, that conducts purchases of commercial space services for the government and creates sensible rules and standards for such.

    Otherwise, it’s the ld Einsteinian definition of insanity: doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.

  14. Could we get oversight transferred to the actual National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)? They seem to be doing a great job with airline safety. I imagine though that it’s a joint effort of sorts between FAA certification and NTSB oversight.

  15. I may be misinformed, but I am under the impression that the Space Shuttle does not meet NASA’s own human rating requirements and flies with waivers allowing it to do so.

    Are you also aware that the shuttle is being retired due to the fallout from its second fatal accident (i.e., precisely because it does not meet those standards and cannot be upgraded to meet them in a practical manner)?

    Just because it’s acceptable for the shuttle (and it isn’t, not any more) doesn’t mean it will be acceptable for future vehicles.

  16. Mike’s analogy to building codes — which are indeed very large — is interesting.

    The key thing is that building codes aren’t documented in mountains of paperwork for each new building. Instead, the builders are trained (and often licensed) to certify that they know the code, and it is the responsibility of a local inspector to verify compliance. There are some procedures to facilitate verification — for example, one part of the electrical inspection must be done before the walls are closed up, another part is done after final finish and before “occupancy”, etc. There is also a robust “component certification” process, so that usually all the local gov’t inspector is looking for is that properly certified/marked wiring, switchboxes, GFI circuits, etc are being used — they don’t need to certify every component “from the ground up”.

    If the Human Rating specs are structured in this way, it would indeed be reasonable to have a hundreds-of-pages spec doc with numerous references to other specifications, without imposing all of the regulatory burden on the “end user”; the regulatory burden is spread across all the component manufacturers and amortized by the large volumes of wires/switches/GFI circuits/etc sold, even if your particular house is “custom”.

    But that’s for a large well-understood market, with hundreds of years of industrial history.

  17. Just think. Without the new Obama policy all those folks would all be happily working on Ares I/Orion. And COTS-D could have moved forward in peace and quiet under the radar…

    But now with nothing to do they are basically writing the safety standards for the HSF industry, as I predicted they would, and will probably shame FAA AST into adopting them or else the insurance firms will just do it for them. (You say your capsule doesn’t meet the NASA standards for flying astronauts and yet you want us to sell you insurance on it? You are joking, right?)

    And remember folks, NASA will be buying rides on sub-orbitals, once they decide on the safety standards they must meet to carry NASA astronauts. Be afraid, be very afraid.

  18. …and if you’re stranded in space with only kegs of beer for propulsion…

    Well, actually, to hell with NASA, DOT, et. al. once business is finally out there flying.

    We have bigger problems with govt. than regulations, although red tape is a huge problem at all levels of govt. The fact that it’s not the biggest problem is the scary part.

  19. Ken,

    [[[Well, actually, to hell with NASA, DOT, et. al. once business is finally out there flying.]]]

    Yes, but there is that pesky transition stage when you need to get your flight papers signed before you are able to go independent.

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