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SpaceShipTwo powered test flight
SpaceShipTwo on its third powered test flight last month. Virgin Galactic and other commercial human spaceflight providers currently operate without any safety regulations for the people who will fly on such vehicles, a regulatory restriction set to expire next October but that some in industry and Congress would like to extend. (credit: Virgin Galactic)

Balancing safety and cost in commercial human spaceflight

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The concept of safety is something that, at first blush, is hard to be opposed to: who wouldn’t want a safer car, a safer neighborhood, or a safer world? However, increased safety can come with financial and other costs that can, eventually, lead to diminishing returns or absurd outcomes. If you want safe highways, you can simply ban automobiles from them—but lose, of course, the benefits such transportation also provides.

“NASA is ignoring the main lesson learned in 50 years of spaceflight and from the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia accidents: Astronaut safety must be the single highest priority in human spaceflight,” Brand wrote.

Safety in spaceflight has recently become a topic of heated discussion. In the recent book Safe Is Not an Option, Rand Simberg argues that an “obsession” with safety has hindered progress in space exploration and development, a claim that’s been met with strong positive and negative reactions (see “Review: Safe Is Not an Option”, The Space Review, January 20, 2014). Last week, at a Congressional hearing and a conference in Washington, government and industry officials debated the safety of commercial human spaceflight in particular, including who should regulate the safety of such vehicles, and how.

Safety versus cost for commercial crew

The latest round in the debate in spaceflight safety started with the publication last month of the annual report by NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP). The cover letter accompanying the report singled out funding for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, or CCP, and how it had tracked below the administration’s request in fiscal years 2011 through 2013 (the report was completed just before Congress completed the fiscal year 2014 appropriations, which also funded the program below the request, although by a smaller amount than previous years.)

“This shortfall is seriously impacting acquisition strategy, and there is risk that force-fitting the CCP into a fixed-price contract with only the funds available has the potential to adversely impact safety,” Joseph Dyer, chairman of ASAP, wrote in the letter. He added that “many within the community of interest worry that NASA is being perceived as sending a message that cost outranks safety in the CCP Request for Proposal (RFP)” for the next phase of the program, for which proposals were due to NASA last month.

Others joined the chorus about what they perceive to be a diminished value on crew safety in the program. “NASA is ignoring the main lesson learned in 50 years of spaceflight and from the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia accidents: Astronaut safety must be the single highest priority in human spaceflight,” wrote former astronaut Vance Brand in a January 20 op-ed in Space News. He warned that because of the RFP’s perceived emphasis on cost versus safety “our nation’s return to spaceflight could be irreparably threatened.”

In an op-ed last week in Aviation Week, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science Committee, discussed the issues she and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the committee’s space subcommittee, had about commercial crew. “We expressed deep concern that Congress was being asked to invest taxpayer dollars in the development of a U.S. human spaceflight system that does not make crew safety the No. 1 priority,” she wrote.

“The commercial crew program requires that you meet NASA’s threshold requirement for safety to have a seat at the table, to even submit a responsive bid,” said Muncy.

The Commercial Crew Program’s proponents argued that the latest RFP doesn’t sacrifice safety for price. In a Space News op-ed last week, former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), responded to Brand’s piece by arguing there’s no conflict between safety and cost. “There is no sliding scale that would allow a little less safety for a lower price; all competitors must meet the certification criteria, and must do so in a manner that NASA itself approves,” he wrote.

At the 17th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington last week, one member of a panel on human spaceflight safety reiterated that point. “The commercial crew program requires that you meet NASA’s threshold requirement for safety to have a seat at the table, to even submit a responsive bid,” said Jim Muncy of PoliSpace. “I don’t believe it’s fair to say that safety is less [important] than price, because you have to be ‘safe,’ you have to meet a certain level of safety” in order to be considered for a contract.

The concept of a “minimum” level of safety bothered another panelist, though. “We incentivize, in the selection criteria for commercial crew, the contractors to produce a product that that has only the bare minimum safety standards,” said James “Russ” McMurry, senior counsel for Boeing Network and Space Systems. “For maybe a little bit more money, the vehicle could be a certain percentage safer.”

McMurry likened the situation to buying a teenager a car, asking “would you buy them a Corvair or a used Volvo, which costs a few thousands dollars more” but would presumably be safer. “That’s the balancing act that we have to have in the source selection criteria,” he said, wondering if NASA astronauts would be satisfied flying in a vehicle that was the lowest cost but only met the minimum safety requirement.

Despite the criticism, the White House is backing NASA’s current approach to safety for commercial crew. In a speech at the conference Thursday, Richard DalBello, assistant director for space and aeronautics at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, cited Lopez-Alegria’s “compelling” op-ed on commercial crew safety in his remarks. “We need not sacrifice safety in pursuit of lower costs,” he said.

Extending the learning period

Companies pursuing a NASA commercial crew contract do have a safety standard they must meet, even if there’s debate on how safety should be prioritized in comparison to cost. For other commercial providers not planning to serve NASA, particularly suborbital space tourism firms, the story is different: for now, there are no government regulations regarding the safety of spaceflight participants.

“The US has over 50 years of experience in human spaceflight,” Nield argued. “For us to just put that aside and start over without taking advantage of what we’ve learned, I think is irresponsible.”

That lack of regulations was put in place with the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (CSLAA) of 2004. That bill restricted the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) from enacting such regulations for eight years after the bill’s enactment in December 2004. While often called a moratorium, it is not an absolute one: the law allows the FAA to enact regulations in the event of a serious of fatal injury during a flight, or an incident that posed a “high risk” of causing such an injury. (The restriction does not prevent the FAA from regulating flights to protect the safety of the uninvolved public, as it does for all commercial launches under its jurisdiction.) The commercial spaceflight industry often refers to this regulatory restriction as a “learning period,” since it was designed to allow companies to build up flight experience upon which the FAA could later enact regulations.

However, the suborbital industry has been slow to develop since late 2004, when the flights of SpaceShipOne appeared to show the industry was on the verge of flying regularly. Two years ago, a provision in an FAA reauthorization bill extended the regulatory restriction, which would have expired in December 2012, until October 2015. With still no flights that have carried spaceflight participants—Virgin Galactic has performed three powered flights of SpaceShipTwo to date, under an experimental permit and carrying only pilots—some in the industry are turning to Congress to seek a further extension of the “learning period,” with one proposal calling for it to last eight years after the first commercial flight to carry spaceflight participants.

However, at a hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee Tuesday about potential updates to the commercial launch law, the head of FAA/AST, George Nield, made it clear that he opposed a further extension of the regulatory restriction. Asked about a recommendation by the FAA’s own advisory group, the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), to extend the regulatory restriction, he expressed his disagreement. “The US has over 50 years of experience in human spaceflight,” he argued, providing a large set of lessons learned for commercial spaceflight providers. “For us to just put that aside and start over without taking advantage of what we’ve learned, I think is irresponsible.”

Committee member Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) then asked Nield if he opposed the original eight-year regulatory restriction in the 2004 CSLAA. “That’s correct,” Nield responded, “but I’m very sensitive to the concerns that industry has about government being overreaching and burdensome and holding things back. That is not what we want to do in the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. We want to enable safe and successful commercial operations.”

Nield reiterated those comments at the end of the FAA’s conference Thursday. “Talking about a learning period makes it sound like we have never had any human space flights, and that we need to try it before we know what to do,” he said, citing the experience of programs dating back to Mercury and X-15. “For us to ignore all of that data, and all of those lessons, would be, I think, irresponsible.”

He recalled complaints about the lack of commercial spaceflight regulations leveled by then-Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), a senior member of the House Transportation Committee, shortly after the passage of the CSLAA. Oberstar, Nield recalled, criticized the FAA for a “tombstone mentality” of waiting until after an accident to enact regulations. “That may not have been a completely fair assessment, but it’s something worth thinking about,” Nield said. “Personally, I’d rather try to be proactive.”

“Call me an optimist,” he continued, “but I honestly believe it would be possible for government, industry, and academia to work together and come up with a small set of top-level requirements that we can all agree on and would be based on experience, common sense, engineering judgment, and would provide a basic level of human spaceflight safety.”

“When we talk about making spaceflight safe, we should keep in mind that the optimal amount of accidents is not zero,” said Heyer. “If it were, we would ban all of this.”

Earlier at the conference, Nield’s deputy, former astronaut George Zamka, used analogies to formation flying and landing on an aircraft carrier for the FAA’s preferred regulatory approach: making lots of small corrections early rather than waiting and having to make large corrections later. “The regulatory changes that would result from a large incident like an accident would have a high risk of being too large and too sweeping, with negative unforeseen consequences that would hurt industry in unforeseen ways,” he warned.

Some in industry, though, still support a continuation of the current regulatory restriction. “It would be insane to not have the government help and assist industry in developing as-safe-as-possible commercial human spaceflight systems as much as possible,” Muncy said at the conference. “The government can do that a thousand ways other than writing a regulation.”

McMurry, however, saw benefits to the FAA’s approach. Referring to companies that oppose oversight and regulation by the FAA, he said that “those are the folks that I’m afraid of, personally, that will ruin the industry by creating a death that is avoidable by the imposition of minimum safety standards.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, some members expressed an interest in extending the regulatory restriction. “Regulating in the absence of flight data is the worst choice we can make,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who was the primary author of the CSLAA a decade ago. Staffers with both the House Science Committee and Senate Commerce Committee said a potential extension would be one issue of several they will consider this year in a planned update of the Commercial Space Launch Act.

Even with some kind of safety regulations or standards by government agencies, there’s still likely, at some point, to be an accident involving a commercial spacecraft with people on board, as both government and industry officials have warned in the past. “When we talk about making spaceflight safe, we should keep in mind that the optimal amount of accidents is not zero. If it were, we would ban all of this,” said Ken Heyer, deputy director of the Bureau of Economics at the Federal Trade Commission, at the conference Wednesday. “We have to figure out how to strike the right balance, not to make sure there are zero accidents.”