Commercial Spaceflight Hopefuls Face Delicate Balancing Act

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BOULDER, Colo. Companies aspiring to transport astronaut crews to and from the international space station on a commercial basis can draw upon NASA’s experiences as they look to strike a balance between system safety and affordability, according to a former director of the agency’s space shuttle program.

“There are some technical lessons that are exactly applicable,” said Wayne Hale, now director of human spaceflight programs at Special Aerospace Services (SAS), a space industry consultancy here. “There’s always going to be a tension between safety and cost control. You can’t go to either end of the spectrum. Obviously, if you go too far in cutting costs and don’t pay attention to safety, you’re going to pay the price at some point.”

On the other hand, Hale said, if there is “layer upon layer upon layer of safety, you build something that either won’t fly or it’s too expensive to fly very often.”

During his time running the space shuttle program, Hale saw the safety pendulum clearly swing too far to the safety end, “and we were doing kind of crazy things that were too costly.” He contrasted that time with the period just before the 2003 Columbia accident when budget cuts went too deep, hobbling the agency’s safety organization.

Hale spoke with Space News immediately following the invite-only Commercial Human Spaceflight Technical Forum, held here Jan. 12-14 to kick-start discussion on what aspiring crew taxi services providers must do to meet NASA human rating and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) commercial licensing requirements. The SAS-hosted meeting drew some 80 participants from government and industry.

NASA in December issued a document outlining its safety standards and certification requirements for commercial crew transportation systems. The meeting here was to help industry as it strives to meet those requirements, Hale said.

“There was a need to bring everybody up to speed and talk about what constitutes a good safety system,” Hale said. “There’s a lot of variability in the safety systems that different folks have. So we’re trying to bring everybody up to best practices.”

NASA has yet to begin formal discussions with prospective commercial crew providers on safety guidelines, so industry at this point is weighing its options, Hale said.

Tim Bulk, SAS co-founder and director of technical operators, said there must be a two-way flow of information between NASA and industry. “People are starting to grasp the volume of requirements … to grasp the benefits of system safety. There’s a need to make sure that the scars that NASA developed in the past, those lessons learned, are made available to industry,” he said in an interview.

At the same time, a key message from prospective commercial spaceflight providers at the meeting was that NASA should “walk in our shoes” and listen to commercial perspectives and their business-case viewpoints.

Brett Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a trade association in Washington, said there is no single pathway to crew safety. “While the culture of safety is very important, different programs have had different approaches to safety, particularly the difference between the Russians and NASA when it comes to human spaceflight,” Alexander said via e-mail after the meeting.

“I think industry is not only ready to provide input to NASA, but is ready to develop commercial human spaceflight systems that improve upon the historical safety record. I didn’t hear anything that would make me believe U.S. industry is not up to the task,” Alexander said.

Rex Ridenoure, chief executive of Ecliptic Enterprises Corp. of Pasadena, Calif., said the FAA is working on a regulatory framework for commercial human spaceflight and that a new regime could be in place by 2013. “Best case is that NASA could be a catalytic partner in all of this; worst case they could be marginalized on the sidelines watching all of this happen,” he said.

But Ridenoure cautioned that an early fatal accident could set the industry back for a generation.

“Clearly, the technical capability to execute plans is evident in many cases. But all of this will be tough going, as space always is. Many firms will not succeed, but a few will … and this will make all the difference,” Ridenoure said.

Hale said the commercial spaceflight industry will have to broaden its marketplace beyond NASA if it is to succeed. “Everybody understands that … and the incentive is to get the industry going,” he said. “For a real commercial industry to take off it has got to go way beyond those two flights a year that NASA wants to fly to the space station.”