More ASAP Thoughts

I’ve been reading the report, and this (partial) graf jumped out at me:

Before NASA crew or personnel on NASA-sponsored missions will be allowed to fly on commercially provided spacecraft, the systems will need to be certified. NASA is still refining the details of the certification process, but as part of the recently awarded Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) Space Act Agreements (SAAs), the partners were asked to provide NASA with recommendations for what they believe it would take to complete a certification milestone, including an “option” to conduct an orbital flight-test demonstration (demo) — under the SAA (outside of a NASA contract) — with a non-NASA crew. Although there is plenty of precedent for contractor test flights in government aviation developments, such flights are always under the certification authority of the government (either the contracting agency, Federal Aviation Administration [FAA], or both). For this NASA option, the demo flight would be outside of NASA’s acquisition authority, thus raising several safety-relevant questions: (1) Would the SAA partner’s demo flight be conducted outside of NASA’s launch and entry certification authority? (2) To the extent that the required FAA license would not cover crew safety systems and procedures (FAA authority is limited by statute), would any other government agency step in to certify flight crew safety? (3) If not, would NASA be legally obligated to certify for crew safety? (4) If the answers to (1) through (3) leave a gap in government crew safety certification, would Agency stake-holders perceive NASA as irresponsible in its sponsorship/facilitation or tacit acceptance of a high-risk activity? [Emphasis added]

Note the unstated assumptions in the questions. For instance, there is an assumption that it is a federal responsibility to ensure passenger safety in private spaceflight. There is currently no such responsibility, statutorily. Let me answer the questions for the panel, under current law.

1) Yes.
2) No.
3) No.
4) Maybe.

The latter is a political question, but it strikes to the core of what I’m talking about in my book. “Agency stake-holders” is an ill-defined term, and certainly not a formal one. I presume they mean primarily Congress, but perhaps they mean the American people as well. If it is not NASA personnel involved, it truly is none of NASA’s business if SpaceX or Boeing want to risk their own employees. In any case, we need to discuss this, and that discussion should be happening now.

[Update a few minutes later]

Whoa! They’re singing my tune:

Space transportation, like all other modes of transportation, involves risk. In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, 547 people lost their lives in aviation accidents, most of which involved general aviation aircraft. Accidents related to trains and railroad systems killed 695 people. Recreational boating claimed the lives of 736 participants. On our nation’s highways, we experienced 33,868 fatalities involving cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles. It is not very realistic to assume that space transportation will be able to eliminate accidents completely, no matter how much emphasis we place on safety and mission assurance.

NASA must to do a better job of helping its stakeholders, which include senior political leadership,the news media, and the general public, to understand and manage expectations about the risks and benefits (the value) involved in human spaceflight. As Congress itself pointed out in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, “spaceflight is inherently risky.” Spaceflight will never, in the foreseeable future, be truly routine, nor will it ever be “safe” when that word is used in the context of our everyday life. Discussions of risk without concomitant discussions of the associated value to be gained are superficial, misleading, and do not permit those involved to arrive at a well reasoned judgment concerning the appropriateness in undertaking this risk. The ASAP recommends that NASA clearly and consistently communicate the hazards involved, their risk of occurrence, and why the value of the goals to be realized warrant taking such risks. This practice will enable the programs to better pursue innovative paths forward to achieve safe, reliable, and cost effective space transportation.

At its heart, the reticence to discuss problems is exacerbated by a failure to proactively explain the risk versus reward—in other words, the net value of the undertaking. It is not surprising that without a clear mission whose importance is understood and is explicitly articulated, stakeholders would be less likely to support an activity which is perceived as having problems without any countervailing benefits that offset the risks. NASA should develop a focused strategic communication plan covering priorities, risks, costs, and benefits. [Emphasis added]

From the conclusion of the book:

NASA must establish a finite value for an astronaut’s life. In practice, the amount cannot be infinite, since the agency has a finite budget and finds it necessary to get things done occasionally. If there is a political obligation to pretend that it is infinite, this means that honest discussion of safety tradeoffs and priorities is forbidden. This actively increases risk, because, as we saw with the Ares I program, it essentially guarantees that money and effort will be allocated haphazardly, rather than being focused on the most serious problems.

It’s almost like they read the book already.

5 thoughts on “More ASAP Thoughts

  1. Der Schtumpy

    Isn’t the safety trade-off up to the individual? Always?

    There are people who BASE jump for fun and adrenaline. Yet, there are skydivers who think they’re nutty. But the majority of people see the skydivers as nutty.

    So there’s a safety tradeoff on who will or won’t jump, and even on who will jump from what height.

    There’s a trade off on much of life’s ‘dangerous’ actions.

    I own and carry guns, daily. I’ve got relatives who see guns as unsafe, I see not having them as unsafe. No right. no wrong, just a difference of out look IMO.

    I know people who won’t drive on the freeway, because the cars go too fast. But, having ridden with them, I think them driving 41 MPH, in the LEFT LANE, in a 45 MPH zone, as much more dangerous.

    I love riding a motorcycle, there are people who see it as too risky.

    I could go on, but the point is, what’s a safety no no for one person, is perfectly acceptable to the next person. I don’t want private space vehicles crashing into houses because they’re built from old VW parts, but i don’t think NASA needs to be looking at crew safety from a standpoint of 100% safety either.

    100% of people who get in the shower today won’t survive it. So NASA can’t set the bar so high that it throttles the life out of advancement in privateer space.

  2. ken anthony

    The reason they dance on eggshells here is they want the power but not the responsibility. As soon as some agency says it’s their job to certify safety, they own the risk. It’s a stupid game.

  3. Thomas Matula

    In the 1950’s the X-planes used to be test flown by company pilots before the NASA/USAF hotshots got a crack at them. What procedures were in place then to certify them? Or were there even any beyond what the program managers thought appropriate? Sounds like a similar model would work for spacecraft.

  4. agimarc

    NASA can certify the commercial space companies to carry their people right after they finish certifying commercial airlines and charter carriers to carry their people. And when they pencil whip the latter, they can be held to the same standard with the former. Cheers -

    1. Ed Minchau

      Currently in the US aircraft certification and pilot certification, among a host of regulations regarding air travel, are taken care of by the FAA. The FAA performs a similar function in the suborbital spaceflight industry. Perhaps having the FAA doing the same for manned orbital spaceflight would provide a sort of check-and-balance for NASA.

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