Some people have been counting on the CAIB to support their nonsensical assertions about safety of government versus commercial vehicles. Well, they’re out of luck:
Our view is that NASA’s new direction can be a) just as safe, if not more safe, than government-controlled alternatives b) will achieve higher safety than that of the Space Shuttle, and c) is directly in line with the recommendations of the CAIB.
Just one more nail in the coffin of space policy mythology. There may be good arguments against the new plan, but for the most part, for the past few months, most of the ones I’ve seen have been both tragic and hilarious in their illogic and non-factuality.
[Update a few minutes later]
In reading the whole thing, I think they’re being far too kind (though I understand that they have to be diplomatic):
Second, the CAIB recommended that future launch systems should “separate crew from cargo” as much as possible. This statement is sometimes taken out of context. What it does mean is that human lives should not be risked on flights that can be performed without people; the new plan to procure separate crew and cargo transportation services clearly is consistent with the CAIB’s recommendation. But the recommendation does not disallow the use of a cargo launch system to also fly, on separate missions, astronaut flights. Indeed, the fact that Atlas V and Delta IV are flying satellites right now, including extremely high-value satellites, has helped to prove out their reliability. And the many satellite and cargo missions that Falcon 9 is planned to fly will also produce the same beneficial result.
This is a very important point. First, that people have always misunderstood the “separate crew and cargo” lesson. To the degree it ever made any sense at all (we don’t do it for trucks, or airplanes), it never meant to have different vehicle designs for crew versus cargo. And one of the craziest notions that the Ares defenders had was that it would be “designed” to be so safe that crew could fly on it on its second flight, whereas rockets with a proven record of dozens of consecutive successful flights under their belts were somehow less “safe” than one with only one flight. As the CSF pointed out today:
The demonstrated track records of commercial vehicles, combined with numerous upcoming manifested flights, means that the family of commercial vehicles already has, and will continue to have, a much stronger track record than other vehicles such as Ares I. The Atlas family of rockets has had over 90 consecutive successes including 21 consecutive successes for Atlas V, and additional unmanned flights will occur over the next few years before any astronaut flights begin. Similarly, many flights of the Delta and Falcon vehicles have already occurred or will occur before astronauts would be placed onboard. Astronauts will not be flying on vehicles that lack a solid track record.
By contrast, NASA was planning to place astronauts on just the second full-up orbital flight of the Ares I system. Ares I would have many fewer test flights than Atlas V, Falcon 9, or Delta IV. Furthermore, the first crewed flight of Ares I will not occur until the year 2017 as determined by the Augustine Committee. Thus, at the planned rate of two Ares I flights per year, it would take the Ares I rocket until at least the year 2025 to match the demonstrated reliability that the Atlas V rocket already has today. That is, the commercial rocket has a fifteen-year head start on safety.
Demonstrated reliability through multiple actual flights to orbit is crucial because paper calculations have historically been insufficient to capture the majority of failure modes that affect real, flying vehicles—especially new vehicles flying their first few missions. As the Augustine Committee stated, “The often-used Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA) … is not as useful a guide as to whether a new launch vehicle will fail during operations, especially during its early flights.” Demonstrated reliability is crucial.
And it’s something that would have taken decades for Ares to develop, given its horrific costs and low flight rate.
And then it’s nice to see people with these credentials dispense with this nonsense:
It has been suggested by some that only a NASA-led effort can provide the safety assurance required to commit to launching government astronauts into space. We must note that much of the CAIB report was an indictment of NASA’s safety culture, not a defense of its uniqueness. The report (p. 97) notes that “at NASA’s urging, the nation committed to build an amazing, if compromised, vehicle called the Space Shuttle. When the agency did this, it accepted the bargain to operate and maintain the vehicle in the safest possible way.” The report then adds, “The Board is not convinced that NASA has completely lived up to the bargain.”
To put it mildly. And there’s no reason that it would be any different in the future. The institutional incentives haven’t changed, and never will, with a government-run program. Private industry has a very strong motivation not to kill people — it could put them out of business. Government agencies, on the other hand, tend to be rewarded for failure.