Commentary | A New Commercial Approach to Space Safety

by and

The launch of Sputnik in October 1957 gave rise to the space race — born of the Cold War. The Cold War can be credited with giving birth to ICBMs, the race to the Moon, MIRVs, anti-ballistic missiles and space surveillance systems. Even GPS was initially designed not for commercial navigation but for targeting warheads. Many civilian space agencies have been driven for strategic national objectives.

New competitive business models can spawn rapid breakthroughs in space that leapfrog the constraints of conventional military and official space agencies.

These unconventional approaches have included the X Prize competition, the remarkable SpaceShipOne design, Bigelow’s attempt to deploy private space platforms, the Stratolaunch project and Space Exploration Technologies’ vertically integrated approach to developing the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. These innovators have employed “outside-the-box” thinking that is more innovative than that normally found in “official” space programs.

To enable the success of these new commercial space efforts we must look to new models for advancing safety. Maritime shipping, oil rig drilling, Formula One racing and aircraft design may show us alternative models for regulating space safety in new and progressive ways. The time has come to explore very seriously whether new forms of industry-supported self-regulation and safety oversight systems — ones that have worked successfully in other industries — could provide swifter answers.

Michael Listner and Simonetta di Pippo, who are active within the International Space Safety Federation (ISSF), recently noted that the maritime industry — and its insurers — have relied for some 350 years on maritime classification societies to create safety standards that Lloyd’s Register of London uses to insure ships at sea. Tommaso Sgobba, president of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS), has noted the considerable success of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile Institute in undertaking research to significantly increase the safety of racing vehicles. Consider the findings of the Deepwater Horizon disaster review team: “The gas and oil industry … should establish a ‘Safety Institute’ … an-industry created, self-policing entity aimed at developing, adopting, and enforcing standards of excellence to ensure continuous improvement in safety and operational integrity offshore.” Yet others have noted the airlines and aircraft manufacturers have largely been able to make great strides in air safety through their own innovations under a regulatory framework that allows competitive upgrades to performance.

What all of these various observations mean to the future of space systems and particularly new commercial space innovations is that “governmental controls” over the space industry may well have slowed design innovation. The fact that the last Moon landing by an astronaut was in 1972 and that Neil Armstrong, who made the first Moon landing, has now died of old age certainly serves to underline this concern about slow progress in the space arena.

So what could be a new way of re-envisioning space for the 21st century? The ISSF and IAASS, among other initiatives, wish to move ahead with establishing an International Institute for Space Safety. This institute would champion commercial, university and independent research development of new systems and technology that would advance the field. The opportunity for innovation is almost limitless. There could be advanced “black boxes” to be used aboard spaceplanes, space systems that could de-orbit from space with much lower thermal gradients, totally new propulsion and spaceplane survival systems, international funds to reward orbital debris mitigation, and a host of other new ideas could come out of a commercially backed space industry research initiative aimed at advancing space safety.

In short, we feel that commercially backed self-regulation can provide the most rapid progress in the new commercial space arena. This form of independent regulatory regime could encourage rapid innovation and accelerated testing of new space systems. New concepts in safety could advance if governmental regulatory constraints were limited to broad safety policies that could lead to a period of very rapid growth of commercial space systems.

How might this be accomplished?

Step 1: Creation of an internationally respected, independent and well-funded International Institute for Space Safety to carry out research and development in the space safety arena and in parallel establish safety standards for commercial vehicles that are ultimately accepted and ratified for the space insurance industry. (This would be largely independent of the regulatory constraints of traditional governmental space programs except for ground systems safety.)

Step 2: Development of ever-improving safety and performance standards for space systems and key subsystems that are constantly upgraded with experience and evolving technology and research breakthroughs.

Step 3: Ongoing industry-governmental communications, cooperative research, comparative analysis and upgraded standards that allow safety innovations that feed off the latest improvements that come from civilian space agencies, military programs and emerging commercial space systems. (To accomplish this goal, liaison arrangements with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation, its new Center of Excellence, the European Aviation Safety Agency and space agencies around the world need to be put into place as comprehensively and quickly as possible.)

Joseph N. Pelton is president of the International Space Safety Foundation. Andrea Gini is editor of Space Safety Magazine.