Independent body proposed to ensure commercial spaceflight safety
LONDON — The nonprofit International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS) issued a new report in March calling for the establishment of an independent Space Safety Institute to speed development of commercial space flight safety standards and certification processes.
The 60-page report, which the Noordwijk, Netherlands-based IAASS and its Houston-based sister nonprofit the International Space Safety Foundation sent to NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. General Accounting Office and several aerospace industry groups, said an independent body is needed to help the commercial spaceflight industry grow and gain public trust.
The Space Safety Institute (SSI) concept, which dates back to 2013, envisions system safety experts from the industry working together with government officials on binding fault-tolerance requirements similar to those that are in place for government-funded spaceflight operations.
“Today in the U.S. if you want to sell an electronic product, like a toaster or a microwave, you need to get a UL sticker because that means that an independent organization looked at your electronic design and made sure that it is not going to hurt people,” said Ed Mango, former NASA Commercial Crew Program manager and one of the experts behind the proposal.
“In commercial spaceflight right now, there is nothing that says a system is safe except the company itself,” Mango said. “That might work for the early space tourism operations but that’s not how you create a thriving industry with point-to-point transportation and commercial operations in low Earth orbit.”
The Space Safety Institute (SSI) could take over from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), a Washington-based industry association of leading businesses in the field, which has been pushing a voluntary consensus approach to safety standards.
IAASS Executive Director Tommaso Sgobba, the former head of the European Space Agency’s Independent Safety Office, said the IAASS was concerned about the slow progress of CSF’s consensus-based approach and was hoping to offer an alternative to move the industry forward.
According to Sgobba, the SSI, which would be partially government funded, would have more authority than an industry group such as CSF, which he said might be prone to put forward only lowest common denominator safety requirements due to the group’s competing interests.
“There is in the world no safety-critical system which is certified on the basis of a voluntary standard,” said Sgobba. “In the case of a standard, there always needs to be some form of enforcement. What we are proposing is similar to what was implemented in the 1970s in the nuclear industry and in the oil industry following the Gulf of Mexico disaster.”
Sgobba pointed out that following the devastating 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a national commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster found the American Petroleum Institute, the trade body representing the U.S. oil and natural gas industry, “culturally ill-suited to drive a safety revolution in the industry” due to its position as a leading industry lobbyist. He warned the CSF might find itself in a similar position.
Mango agreed: “The CSF is a good organization but it’s an organization that’s there to fundamentally push commercial space. If you want the people who are pushing it to also regulate it then you are going to get to the lowest common denominator.”
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation says the concerns expressed by the IAASS are based on outdated and inaccurate information. “Originally, CSF attempted a standards drafting process on our own, with some success, but quickly realized it was necessary to open up the process to ensure truly consensus standards and a potential basis for future licensing or regulation,” said Jane Kinney, CSF’s director of business operations.
CSF joined forces with ASTM International in 2016 to stand up a committee on commercial spaceflight, dubbed F47, to develop consensus standards with input from non-CSF companies, such as Boeing and United Launch Alliance, as well as academia and government. “[W]e are one representative in a committee of multiple voices and votes,” Kinney said. “We are advocates and supporters of the work being conducted, but are not ‘leading the establishment of safety standards.’”
Kinney said IAASS is welcome to join F47 but shouldn’t be leading the standards-development effort. “IAASS is not willing to accept feedback or input from industry, which CSF views as an inherent flaw in their process.
Mango described the SSI, which would operate independently from the IAASS, as a two-pronged approach involving the creation of standards and ensuring that the standards are being met by providing certification to commercial spaceflight operators. The institute’s standards-setting body of technical experts would rely on a modest amount of government funding while its certification operations would be paid entirely by the companies seeking the approval stamp.
“In the early days of the commercial spaceflight developments, regulations were seen as possibly preventing innovation,” he said. “But the industry has matured since. We are now getting mainstream and seeing companies that are interested in having these sets of guidelines and safety recommendations as to how to build and operate such systems instead of everyone doing their own thing.”
He added that while early space tourists might be willing to sign waivers and accept the high risk associated with the experience, insurance policies would have to be in place if the industry truly wants to grow.
“Insurance companies are interested in seeing the commercial spaceflight operators meeting certain requirements,” he said. “Right now, passengers just sign waivers but that’s not something that would work even in an amusement park.”
In addition to release its report, “The Space Safety Institute: Proposal for a Modern Industry-Government Partnership to Advance Commercial Spaceflight Safety,” to members and a cross-section of government and industry groups, the IAASS has established a study team that includes former FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation George Nield, former U.S. Air Force deputy undersecretary Richard McKinney and space insurance underwriter Chris Kunstadter, among others.
Sgobba said the study team is working on a proposal for making the Space Safety Institute a federally funded research and development center. If the study team agrees on a way forward, it intends to present its proposal to the FAA and NASA — the potential funders — by September.
Mango added that the team is inviting industry partners to join the conversation and help find the best way forward.