Commercial Spaceflight No Less Safe


Like many of you, I have to fly a lot. Every month, I purchase plane tickets to go to meetings, speak at conferences or visit family. Every now and again, I am fortunate enough to get an excellent price on a plane ticket, and I can assure you that not once have I hesitated to purchase that ticket due to safety concerns. It would never cross my mind that just because the price of a ticket on an innovative airline such as Virgin America, JetBlue or Southwest is competitively priced, my safety as a passenger would be substantially compromised. As commercial passengers, we simply buy our tickets knowing that safety is a paramount concern for airlines and recognize that lower prices are usually a result of competition, new technologies and better business strategies.

Unfortunately, when we face the same issue in the context of commercial human spaceflight, the thinking of many somehow becomes twisted. Several policymakers seem to make the unwarranted leap of logic that if commercial space travel costs less than a government program, it is inherently less safe. I continue to be concerned when I hear comments along these lines with such gratuitous assumptions, and thought that since a congressional hearing has been scheduled to address the issue of safety, it was an opportune moment to restate what should be obvious: Lower costs do not inherently lead to a reduction in safety.

We have heard the refrain time and time again from the critics of commercial human spaceflight that while the program of record is much more expensive (by a factor of roughly 10) than crewed commercial low Earth orbit operations, the additional funds are justified in order to maintain safety. However, as the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) associate administrator for commercial space transportation for 11 years, I didn’t experience anything that lends credence to such claims. I never had any serious commercial human spaceflight company come to me with plans for a launch vehicle that would be less safe than existing NASA systems, and they had no less commitment to maintaining safety at the highest level. None of these companies goes into business to go out of business. They recognize that this is an ultrahazardous business, and because it is, they must do everything possible to keep things as safe as can be. As a matter of fact, the goal of companies pursuing human space transportation in the civil space world via the Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 is to field systems that are much safer than either the shuttle or Soyuz, and as safe if not safer than Constellation.

The Atlas 5 has a significant advantage over both Falcon 9 and Ares in that it actually exists. One aspect, if not the most important aspect, for establishing safety is flight heritage. The Atlas 5 has had 18 consecutive successful launches. I have been amazed by Ares supporters’ attacks on this system, since they are in the unenviable position of claiming that their rocket, which exists only on paper, is much safer than arguably the most reliable launch vehicle flying today. It’s also worth noting that the probabilistic risk assessments that Ares supporters use to bolster their safety argument rarely identify the actual problems that rockets face when they are put into operation. Again, I will take dozens of operational flights over a paper assessment any day.

Like Ares, the Falcon 9 suffers from a lack of flight heritage. However, Space Exploration Technologies is moving quickly to remedy this situation. The first Falcon 9 launch should take place early next year, and by the time Ares 1 is to have its first flight in 2017, the Falcon 9 is likely to have flown nearly a dozen times.

As for Ares’ design, while intelligent minds could differ in regard to the implications of utilizing a solid-rocket booster system for human spaceflight, this carries with it inherent difficulties and dangers as opposed to liquid rockets that can be shut off. Analyses conducted by the U.S. Air Force have identified safety concerns, and problematic abort scenarios, vibration and other issues remain to be resolved.

It would be a mistake to assume that simply because of a higher price tag the program of record does not have at least as many safety-related questions to answer as the proposed commercial crew systems. This was essentially the conclusion of the Augustine committee, that after conducting an independent analysis of safety-related issues, there was really no way to establish a substantive difference between rocket concepts that exist only on paper.

Moreover, it’s vital to recognize that although commercial human spaceflight will be under a different regulatory framework than past NASA launches, this does not mean that commercial crew systems will be held to a lower standard in regard to safety. No one has all of the answers, and while NASA has a rich safety legacy, it is not a perfect legacy. What the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation will do is learn from NASA, work with NASA; learn from the Air Force, work with the Air Force; and  learn from and work with other relevant agencies in crafting requirements, terms and conditions in a licensing process that represents the best collective thinking in terms of safety. This will be a regime that will be different from, but in no way inferior to, what NASA would otherwise demand.

It’s worth noting that there are powerful incentives for the commercial firms to maintain the best possible safety record. 

When NASA launches have resulted in fatalities, there has been much scrutiny but no serious discussion of shutting down the entire agency. However, if a commercial space company experienced a fatality,  it is likely the entire company would be put out of business, and the hundreds of millions of dollars invested by the likes of Elon Musk and Robert Bigelow would be wiped out. Commercial space companies will continue to focus on safety regardless of government requirements.

All too often, government agencies suffer from a not-invented-here syndrome. Their attitude is: If they’re not doing it our way, it won’t be done as well, or it can’t be done. You can hear echoes of this from commercial critics who claim it’s impossible for a private company to provide human space transportation in a fashion that is both cheaper and safer than NASA. The triumphant flight of SpaceShipOne in 2004 was a wake-up call to many that private-sector innovation can lead to stunning achievements and new architectures that enhance both safety and affordability. I hope that Congress can open its lenses a little wider and support leveraging America’s entrepreneurial spirit when it comes to space transportation.

For decades, many have talked a lot about lowering the cost of access to space. I took those people seriously and believed that we, as a nation, could get there. I still believe that we can. At the end of the day, the business of government is not to compete with private industry, but rather to encourage its unique development, its breakthroughs and creativity, as complementary partners in the business of space. Just like with airlines, safety and affordability are not mutually exclusive, and for human spaceflight, it’s high time that we demand both.


Patti Grace Smith is an aerospace consultant and former FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation.