Commentary | A NASA for the Future

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America and its space agency are at a crucial juncture in the competition for world leadership in human spaceflight. In a critical aspect of this contest — the ability to launch humans into orbit — we are currently tied with the rest of the world for third place, behind Russia and China. Indeed, we pay the former dearly for the privilege of launching our own astronauts into space to visit the international space station, whose construction we led and whose operations we lead. 

Much has changed since the heady days of NASA five decades ago, when geopolitical circumstances gave us the will, and 4.5 percent of federal discretionary spending gave us the means, to accomplish the still unparalleled feats of the Apollo program. With a small slice of less than one-tenth of those means available, NASA is hard at work, in collaboration with American companies, to close the gap and return our astronauts to space on American vehicles.

NASA’s innovative approach is the Commercial Crew Program, an initiative based on the highly successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program for ISS cargo resupply. COTS utilized a fixed-price approach instead of traditional contracts to develop, demonstrate and procure safe, cost-effective ISS cargo resupply services from two companies, providing both competition-driven cost containment and operational redundancy. Now that this successful model is being applied to human-rated vehicles, however, a few respected voices have appeared in SpaceNews to decry what they see as a sacrifice of safety in favor of price, and to call for a return to the comfort and familiarity of traditional contracts. 

But their concerns reflect a mistaken belief that contracting method drives safety. 

These two aspects of the program are apples and oranges; one is a variable and the other must be a given. While NASA’s request for proposals for the latest stage of the program — Federal Acquisition Regulations-based certification contracts — correctly weighs price highly, compliance with NASA’s human safety requirements is non-negotiable. 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.

Further, the argument that price trumps safety in this request for proposals incorrectly assumes that the more spent on vehicle development, the safer the vehicle. In fact, history has proved that the only way to truly guarantee safety is to stay home. Short of that, we must do our very best to maximize safety through strong design and manufacturing standards, enforced by NASA’s unconditional requirement to meet safety and other certification criteria. NASA’s independent Technical Authorities in engineering, crew health and medicine, and safety and mission assurance, which were established as a result of the key findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, will be vigorously engaged in determining compliance. Failure to meet safety requirements is not an option for any competitor. The implication that a commercial provider will somehow “cut corners” makes little sense. Beyond their moral obligations to the men and women they plan to carry, commercial offerers are incentivized to be safer than their competitors, not less so; their very existence, let alone business success, depends upon it.

The geopolitical and fiscal environments are not the only things that have changed since the days of Apollo. Automobiles and airplanes are now far safer, thanks to important advances in design and manufacturing techniques, as well as new technologies like air bags and anti-skid brakes. Likewise, the next human space vehicles will be safer than the space shuttle, with no abort “black zones” and with enhanced system health monitoring via modern sensors, computers and data management suites.

It is indeed an important role of astronauts to be guardians of the safety and well-being of their brethren. Many of them are now engaged in doing just that, not only in the halls of the Astronaut Corps but as part of the very companies that are developing these new vehicles. Many former NASA flight control, engineering, and safety and mission assurance professionals have also joined those companies’ development teams. When they wore NASA badges there was no question of their dedication to safety; the considerable experience they gained in those roles only serves to make them more effective stewards today.

If we want America to retain its leadership in space we must take full advantage of those concepts that are so fundamentally and uniquely American: innovation, entrepreneurship and competition. To my esteemed colleagues who have expressed concern, an invitation: Meet with the astronauts, engineers, technicians and other experts who are building the next American spacecraft. They will demonstrate how they are putting the safety of our astronauts first, and I believe you will leave convinced that the new commercial crew vehicles will be the safest ever flown. 


Michael Lopez-Alegria is a former NASA astronaut and current president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF). The views reflected are not necessarily those of all CSF member companies.