Forget Safety, We Need Our Own Spaceships

I have a follow-up to my Friday USA Today column, over at The Corner.

[Update a few minutes later]

At the suggestion of a colleague, lest I appear to be advocating kamikaze missions, the suggested language for the legislation might be: “The exploration and development of space is a national priority. Therefore, NASA’s first priority must be mission success in the critical steps toward reaching this goal. Consistent with this priority NASA shall strive at all times to achieve a level of safety comparable to that enjoyed by other critical national programs in extreme environments, such as deep-ocean and polar activities.”

The challenge and onus would then be on NASA and Congress to say why that is not a reasonable standard (which is currently met without all of NASA’s ridiculous safety/cost-plus/certification rigmarole).

34 thoughts on “Forget Safety, We Need Our Own Spaceships”

  1. oh geez. The “eight burly enthusiastically metabolizing men” bit brought tears to my eyes. well played sir.

  2. Does the whole list of NASA crew-safety restrictions apply if SpaceX says “Screw this” and just launches a DragonRider (with crew) -not- to ISS?

    That is: Can they “just” recreate Mercury6 without jumping through the “Safety First!” insanity?

      1. Yes, they are behaving like a government contractor. We might be able to build a crewed Dragon in a year if you pay us, but we need money for the feasibility study first,

        In short, they are morphing to the dark side of the force as is the case with most firms that become contractors to NASA.

        1. Once they complete the DoD payload certification, the transformation will be complete !

          1. Yes, they will have been assimilated into the collective, but then that is the same path Orbital followed.

        2. Getting overly mired in gov’t contracting is the poison pill that could turn SpaceX from an entrepreneurial company capable of opening interesting, inexpensive, new markets into an aerospace dinosaur that would rather celebrate anniversaries of great accomplishments.

          However, there are other examples. Look at companies like Microsoft, who was a small time contractor to IBM … but they managed to keep their own culture, vision and goals through the process of growth.

          I hope that Elon continues to engage with NASA ; both for SpaceX’s good, and for NASAs — at least for the time being. A couple more years of experience building, launching, and operating spacecraft in LEO, using mostly NASA money is a good thing for SpaceX

          1. Deference to NASA should begin and end with its importance as a major customer of SpaceX. And commercial spaceflight depends mightily on NASA not being the major customer of SpaceX in even the medium term, let alone the long term.

        3. SpaceX is not working on feasibility studies. They are working on the LAS which is a requirement LAS put into the contest. Even if Shuttle never had one to begin with.

  3. Excellent points, Rand.

    I’m hoping to see more focus on just how outlandish some of NASA’s requirements are. For example, there has never been a manned spaccecraft, US or forign, that could meet NASA’s current “human rating” regs. For example, every prior US spacecraft exceeded NASA’s current 3g max guideline. Shuttle only did so by a bit, but, Shuttle didn’t have a LAS. And neither did Gemini (like the first four shuttle flights, it used ejection seats). Actually, by any metric whatsoever, Shuttle was never human-rated.

    My own personal take; They should skip the MAX-Q LAS test. I think the pad abort test is worthwhile, but that one doesn’t require wasting a launch vehicle. Do that, and you could have Dragonrider (or Dragon 2, which looks like it might be the name) carrying astronauts this year, and send the Russians a gift-wrapped trampoline instead of 71 mil per seat.

    My guess though; The downselect will be to Boeing. They’ll thus select a vehicle that does not yet exist, which requires a launch vehicle they can’t get engines for. Because yes, congress is that stupid/corrupt.

    I hope I’m wrong.

    1. Generally agree except about the abort tests. The one to dump is the pad abort test as it doesn’t use an actual booster to launch from nor are the aerodynamics interesting or challenging. Do a successful in-flight abort test and all the trash talk about safety pretty much stops.

      As to the CCtCap downselect, if any, there are certainly people in Congress who will try to go this route, but I’m not sure their usually-asleep-at-the-switch colleagues from non-space districts will be as inclined to give them a pass this time. This Ukraine thing made all the papers and even the RD-180 and $71 million/seat Soyuz ride stories seems to be slowly leaking out into the general public’s awareness.

      1. My thought was that the pad abort would be by far the cheaper and easier of the two.

        However, in case of immediate need, I’d favor delaying both tests and flying (manned) with the LAS untested; it’s still a hell of a lot safer to have an untested LAS than not have one at all (like Shuttle).

        I hope you’re right regarding downselect, but… I can’t forget what a friend of mine said last week when I raised this issue; “After what’s already happened, the House and Senate would have to be chock-full of brain-dead drooling morons to even consider selecting a capsule that relies on a Russian engine as the only way to get to space!”

        And that’s what makes me think they’ll do precisely that.

        1. My thought was that the pad abort would be by far the cheaper and easier of the two.

          Agreed. That’s why I suggested deep-sixing it. It’s cheaper, but hardly cost-free, especially in terms of schedule. And it won’t really convince anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced that Dragon 2.0 is really safe. Dumping it saves time, some money and a Dragon 2.0 vehicle. An in-flight abort test will be a much more convincing riposte to all the trash-talking trolls out there. Make no mistake, the trolls, both on-line and in the Congress, will never admit Dragon 2.0 has the goods. That doesn’t matter. What matters is to make sure other people who might listen to them under other circumstances have no reason to do so by running a convincing test.

          Agree also about the relative safety of flying with untested Dragon LAS compared to non-existent Shuttle LAS. I just don’t see any way in hell Congress and/or the White House are going to see demonstrating an accelerated U.S. human spacelift capability as being worth rolling those particular dice. After a moved-up-and-successful in-flight abort test, though, they might be convinced an early demonstration flight, with crew, is worth the vastly decreased residual risk.

          Also agree it’s never usually a good idea to bet against the idiocy and short-sightedness of Congresscritters. But a lot has changed in both the international and domestic political arenas in the past 90 days. Some of the worst congressional reptiles may have failed to fully appreciate that yet, but, if they try something as raw as a Boeing-only early downselect, I think they’ll find a lot more teeth than they expect to be puncturing their epidermises and in some surprising spots too.

          1. I’m coming around to your POV on the Max-Q test. And frankly, given the current push for downselect, my guess is that the best chance SpaceX has is to get the MAx-Q test done before the downselect this fall. However, even if SpaceX successfully demonstrates both bad abort and Max-Q, and then sends up a few test pilots to orbit, I still think Boeing’s CST-100 (which does not yet exist and has LV availability problems) would be the slight favorite.

            My guess for the excuse for cutting SpaceX out of commercial crew: their launch delays with the F9. As for the RD-180 issue, I think they’ll go with the idea of flying CST-100 on the F9 (without bothering to see if SpaceX is willing). I realize these two lines of reasoning are self-contradictory (the LV delays are a dealkiller for Dragon, but the delays in the same LV aren’t for CST-100) but that won’t bother them at all.

            Oh, I do agree that much has changed in the past 90 days. The Ukraine has certainly brought the manned space issue plus the RD-180 to the fore. Add to that the Orbital/ATK merger, plus a few other things, and you definitely have a vastly different environment, one the congresscritters would be brain-dead to fail to grasp, and will absolutely get bit for it if they do it. But… unless you want to claim that said congresscritters have at least one functioning neuron betwixt their ears, I think they’ll blithely ignore reality, as they so oft do on all manner of things.

            It’s worth bearing in mind that the Challenger Disaster’s primary root cause was congress. (powerful senators, in that case). The reason the SRBs had O-rings was the segmented design, which was made necessary by the diameters and curve radii of 19th century railroad tunnels (and making them in Utah, unlike in the vast majority of states, meant they’d need to be shipped by rail instead of barge). ATK’s design was, if I recall, rated forth out of four by NASA, yet it was chosen for political reasons, over single-casing designs (this caused a performance hit, as well). Aerojet even test-fired their candidate, which they wanted to make in Florida.

          2. Accurate point about the segmented SRB decision. Still, there was not a bright red swinging lantern at the time waving to Congress from a few years up the line with Challenger’s doom emblazoned on it. That particular “bridge out” situation was still hidden behind intervening hills and curves. That’s much less true of current downed bridges. They’re all pretty easily visible in the not very distant distance. Many of them are located on Russian territory, so to speak. I’m much less sure that, even allowing for the usual parochial idiocy of Congress, that the few members with intense interests in seeing things go a particular way will be able to convince enough of their colleagues to permit the throttles to be opened and the missing Russian bridges ignored. Sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant and this whole Russians vs. space thing seems to be attracting more notice in the mainstream press and by the general public with each passing day.

            The Mitchell Report on the RD-180 problem is now out. Space News has an article about it and SLS matters. It pretty much confirms the worst scenarios reported here yesterday by Kavanaugh and Egad. I’m going to post this link further down with their stuff too. Read it and weep – or laugh.

  4. The Russians control all propulsion systems on ISS. I’ll bet the people in MCC Moscow can develop minimal prop use maneuvering plans that will prevent successful US berthing and docking approaches to ISS, and I’ll also bet that mode of ops can be sustained longer than the on-orbit life of a Dragon, CST-100, and DreamChaser. On the other hand, I believe US-Russian relations need to get a lot, lot worse before the Russians refuse to take NASA’s dollars for Soyuz seats, and also prevent successful US berthing and docking ops. On the other other hand, what’s in ISS for Russia after US crew transport becomes a regular, reliable service, and the US, ESA, and JAXA stop paying Energia and RSA for Soyuz seats? If the Russians stop delivering prop to ISS, all of NASA’s long-term ISS plans are toast. Unless Elon Musk has a card he hasn’t shown us yet.

    1. How long would the ISS batteries last once disconnected from the solar panels? Could the ISS then maneuver at all?

      I seriously doubt the ISS even with stronger thrusters could outmaneuver the much lighter Dragon.

      Between SAFER and a maneuvering Dragon this ballet would be a sight to see.

      If they thought ‘Gravity’ was good, somebody should make a movie of this!

      1. ken,
        The Russians should be able to get enough power from the solar panels and batteries on the existing Russian Segment to at least power the Russian comm, computer, GNC, and thruster systems for short periods. Can the existing Russian Segment support those functions periodically, and the ECLSS systems needed to support at least 2 cosmonauts, without receiving any power from the US Segment? I do not know.

        My money is still on the Russian orbital mechanics, rendezvous/prox ops, GNC, and prop system engineers, along with on-board cosmonauts, being able to keep any visiting vehicle from successfully stationkeeping within SSRMS reach for more than a few minutes, or docking with ISS. If the Russians so choose.


  5. Did you guys catch the SpaceNews article that cites NASA has having no further plans no to utilize the J-2X for the SLS upper stage? (As opposed to J-2X being moth-balled for a decade.) And having scuttled the liquid booster competition? When did these become official decisions?

    1. And having scuttled the liquid booster competition?

      Yeah, I was taken completely by surprise by that this morning. A quick google doesn’t find additional information about it, so perhaps best to wait a little and see if it’s really true.

      OTOH, I’ve wondered all along how the booster upgrade could be competed honestly given the nature of the politics that created and supports SLS. Senator Hatch would be distressed if ATK lost.

    2. Link? I can’t find any recent articles on Space News with headlines about this. Is this a buried lede in some story that’s mainly about something else?

      1. Indeed, it’s very buried in a story about something else. I’m puzzled and increasingly skeptical about it.

        “Similarly, NASA has backed off of a plan to upgrade SLS with a pair of competitively selected strap-on boosters to replace the ATK-provided solids that will boost the 2017 and 2021 missions off the pad, Gerstenmaier told SpaceNews May 8. The scuttled competition had been scheduled for 2015.”

        1. Okay, I read it. It says what you said it did. If what’s stated in the last two paragraphs is literally true then NASA and SLS are in even worse shape than I thought. And I have a lot of questions others here have probably come up with too. If J-2X is permanently on the shelf, what is supposed to power the upper stages of 70+ tonne SLS versions? RL-10’s aren’t going to get SLS to 130 tonnes. Are the bigger SLS versions now dead? Same general question about the liquid boosters. Is it now supposed to be SRB’s forever? What do Dynetics or any other potential entrants in the liquid booster competition have to say? What the heck is ATK’s take on all this in the wake of being merged with Orbital? Building a measly four SRB’s over the next seven years doesn’t look like much of a business to me. Maybe pre-merger ATK was willing to settle, but if Orbital needs them to crank out new Antares first stages, will they change their minds about making SRB’s in slow-motion? I think Sen. Coburn needs to go back to the GAO and have them go shake NASA’s tree some more. Be interesting to see what falls out.

    3. In case you guys haven’t seen it yet, Space News has an article about the Mitchell Report on the RD-180 situation and the SLS matters you rooted out yesterday. It pretty much confirms the worst scenarios reported here yesterday by both of you worthy gentlemen. Read it and weep – or laugh.

    4. Sorry. The Mitchell Report stuff was actually in this Space News article. I read a lot more of their stuff today than I usually do and I guess the two articles about the Mitchell Report and SLS ran together in my mind.

  6. I was excited for a few minutes thinking Rand was advocating we build some spaceships but instead it was Earth to space ships.

    1. Yeah, like the difference between ship and boat on water, spaceship should only refer to a refuelable orbit to orbit ship within a star system. Starship being the correct term for being able to go from star to star.

      Shuttle would be the term for surface to orbit with lander being a one way shuttle.

      Taxi and tug also have specific meanings. They don’t leave orbit at all (Lagrange is an orbit.)

        1. Gawd! How apt! Now that you’ve put me into a thoroughly Hornblower state of mind, I guess I could suggest “Captain’s gig” as a possible alternative, but “Pinnace” is just as marvelously retro. I touch slow match to bow chaser in salute to you, sir!

  7. @ Dick Eagleson;

    Thanks for the link to the report.

    I noted one glaring thing that went unmentioned; that by shelving the advanced boosters, they can kiss that planned 130 ton SLS capability goodby.

    Looks to me like they’re pulling back from the high capacity versions. They have to be if they’re going with a 4 RL-10 based upper stage and skipping the advanced boosters. For what it’s worth, I’ve been predicting they’d do exactly this for years. My reasoning was that their numbers never added up, and further, that it doesn’t matter what SLS payload turns out to be that’s not what they are interested in. They (some in congress on both sides of the aisle) are interested in being able to say they are creating this wondrous system, but with a full capability date of 2032 (!) they don’t care a whit if it ends up having a payload of just one pound – politicians rarely look beyond the next election cycle. So, they are effectively skipping the steps to the 130 ton version, but rest assured, that won’t stop them from saying it’ll have that capability.

    Remember, they don’t call in the Senate Launch System for nothing. 🙂

    As for the RD-180; interesting that the report says that ULA (contrary to their many claims and assurances to the contrary) is not able to ramp up Delta 4 production. It also turns out that the vaunted stockpile is just 16 engines, a far cry from the 2 to 2.5 years worth they claimed. (and one of those 16 is scheduled to launch tomorrow). And that assumes that all of the remaining 15 can be made flight-ready without the help of Russian techs (a matter far from certain).

    Was there a glaring red warning lantern for the selection of a segmented booster for shuttle. Well, sort of; no one had built a segmented, stackable SRB, plus there was the performance hit and complexity, cost, and the issue of NASA preferring any of the other options. Not as glaring as the issues today, granted.

    But let’s use a car as an analogy. Suppose you’re driving down the highway, and your passenger (another adult) sees a glaring red “Bridge out ahead” flashing red warning light, plus road barriers, and beyond them, a gaping chasm of looming death. They’d probably realize that going full speed ahead on that road was a bad idea, and tell you so. But let’s dial down the IQ a bit. Would a kindergartener understand what they were seeing and react accordingly? Maybe. Now dial it down some more; would a dog understand and react accordingly? I doubt it. And, dial the IQ down yet another step; would a typical member of congress understand what they were seeing and react accordingly? Frankly, I’d rather trust the dog; dogs at least have a bit of common sense in some situations. 🙂

    1. Your thoughts on SLS seem spot on. In the Wikipedia SLS article, the quad RL-10 upper stage is said to yield a maximum LEO launch mass of 93 tonnes. To get even marginally over 100 tonnes it appears that the current ATK SRB design has to be supplanted with a lighter one that uses a composite casing and a different fuel grain formula. With ATK now an Orbital subsidiary, I wouldn’t bet the rent on that ever happening. 93 tonnes is a long way from 130. But, as you say, performance isn’t really an issue with the people backing SLS; they’re only about the pork.

      On the RD-180 mess, I note Mitchell didn’t exactly say Delta production couldn’t be increased, but that it couldn’t be increased enough to avoid major launch delays. Considering that ULA can’t count on launching more than 15 additional Atlases based on their current engine inventory, and that Atlas has always outnumbered Delta on ULA’s launch manifests by almost 2:1, I can see where even if ULA could double Delta production, they’d still fall way short. They’d need to more than triple Delta production to compensate for loss of Atlas given that it would take a triple-core Delta Heavy to replace the most muscular of the Atlas configurations. Interestingly, Mitchell doesn’t seem to think that even throwing open the DoD/USAF/NRO launch manifest to SpaceX will necessarily avoid delays either. Maybe he’s underestimating SpaceX’s abilities, but he should be conservative in drawing up a report of such importance. It sounds like ULA could crank up Delta production by some relatively modest percentage over their recent base rate, but doing so won’t compensate for much of the gaping hole blown in ULA by imminent loss of Atlas. Really must suck to be them these days.

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