SAN FRANCISCO — The battle being fought behind the scenes between NASA officials and space industry executives over requirements for commercial crew transportation burst into public view Nov. 14 when NASA’s former space shuttle program manager warned that the conflict was “poised to kill the [commercial transportation] initiative in its infancy.”
Wayne Hale, the former shuttle manager who left NASA in July to join Special Aerospace Services, a Boulder, Colo.-based consulting firm, compared the relationship between the commercial human spaceflight industry and NASA to a “coming train wreck.” Efforts to maintain high safety standards have led to voluminous requirements for vehicles designed to carry astronauts, Hale wrote. “Somewhere along the line, we have crossed over the optimum point to ensure safety and just added cost and delay,” he added.
Hale referred to an Oct. 8 draft of the space agency’s requirements for commercial crew transportation and services that was posted on a password-protected website. In January, NASA plans to issue a request for information seeking industry comments on the draft requirements, according to Phil McAlister, NASA’s commercial crew planning lead. The final requirements are scheduled to be completed next spring “after extensive review and comment by NASA and industry,” McAlister added in written responses to questions.
Still, commercial space proponents said the initial draft demonstrates the resistance of some NASA officials to the types of dramatic changes in oversight necessary to create a thriving commercial sector. “The document runs a mind-numbing 260 pages of densely spaced requirements,” Hale wrote. “Most disappointing, on pages 7 to 11 is a table of 74 additional requirements documents which must be followed, in whole or in part. Taken all together, there are thousands of requirement statements referenced in this document. And for every one NASA will require a potential commercial space flight provider to document, prove, and verify with massive amounts of paperwork and/or electronic forms. This, folks is the old way of doing business. This is one of the major reasons why spaceflight is as costly as it is.”
McAlister countered those assertions, saying the space agency is striving “to maximize safety and reliability” without burdening commercial firms with unnecessary requirements that lead to higher development and operations costs. “A simplistic page count” of the commercial crew requirements document does not “reflect the quality of the requirements,” he wrote, adding that most of the pages published include the rationale for requirements to show industry the intent of the requirements and give them “the flexibility to meet the requirements in innovative ways.”
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What’s more, the task being undertaken is extremely complex, McAlister wrote. Space agency officials must evaluate a wide variety of factors to gain the confidence that missions will be successful. Those factors include not only the contractor’s flight vehicle, but also systems, operating conditions, mission planning and flight crew training, McAlister wrote. “NASA and the aerospace community have developed an outstanding complement of design and human certification requirements, rules, and processes that can substantially enhance vehicle reliability, improve mission success, and maximize crew safety,” he added.
Before leaving NASA, Hale spent several months working on plans for the commercial crew initiative and promoting the idea that the effort should be modeled on the NASA Launch Services program, which purchases expendable launch vehicles for scientific missions. The space agency should “do what the Launch Services Program does: require that providers have standards and follow them — don’t make them pick particular processes or standards,” he wrote.
Although that is not the route NASA took, Hale wrote Nov. 17 that after re-reading the commercial crew requirements he realized that they are significantly scaled down from those of the Constellation program’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicles and the Ares 1 rocket. In addition, the document states that many of the specifications and standards can be replaced with alternatives that meet the intent of the language. “To the casual reader that sounds like a big change,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, it is not. Having to prove that an alternative standard is just as good as the standard NASA listed is an uphill battle … I speak from sad experience.”
Still, Hale wrote Nov. 17 that he regretted airing his concerns about the commercial crew program because his comments provided ammunition for people to target NASA or the commercial human spaceflight initiative. “Human spaceflight is important to our nation and to the world,” he wrote. “Whether or not commercial firms can actually succeed is still open; but NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration must walk a careful tightrope of ensuring safety while not killing the enterprise with over-regulation.”
The draft requirements are “a step in the right direction, but hardly revolutionary,” Hale wrote. “That revolution is what NASA leadership must show the workers how to accomplish.”
The U.S. government did not always rely on voluminous specifications to safeguard pilots or astronauts, Hale said, citing requirements for the first U.S. military aircraft, which covered only 2.5 pages, and those of NASA’s Gemini capsule, which were about 12 pages long. “Simple, straightforward requirements and the flexibility to use good industry based standards could allow commercial space flight to be as successful as those programs or the NASA Launch Services program,” Hale wrote. “But we are not on that path.”
Hale declined to comment for this story. Space industry executives and consultants involved in NASA’s commercial transportation initiative also declined to comment. “We continue to work with our NASA customer on their requirements,” said Chris Chavez, spokesman for Denver-based United Launch Alliance, which is participating in NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program under a $6.7 million contract awarded in February.