Two Hearings To Examine Private Spaceflight Safety

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As the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama considers outsourcing part of NASA’s manned spaceflight program to the private sector, two congressional panels will examine potential safety issues associated with commercial human spaceflight Dec. 2 during simultaneous hearings.

Tough questions from lawmakers are expected at a House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee hearing on human-rating NASA and commercial  launch vehicles and spacecraft.

The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), will hear testimony from current and former NASA officials versed in the agency’s human-rating requirements process, including lessons learned from developing safety standards for the space shuttle program, assessing the safety of Russian Soyuz launch vehicles, and the process used to human-rate NASA’s Ares 1 rocket, part of the agency’s 5-year-old Constellation program designed to replace the aging shuttle with rockets and spacecraft optimized for the Moon.

Giffords — the wife of NASA astronaut Mark Kelly — and other members of the House panel have questioned the wisdom of abandoning Ares 1 in favor of commercial transportation options, a scenario outlined by a White House-appointed panel tasked with determining alternatives to NASA’s manned spaceflight plans.  In an Oct. 22 report, the panel urged Obama to consider making a $5 billion investment in commercial transportation systems capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the international space station by 2016, one year earlier than the panel predicts Constellation can be up and running.

Jeff Hanley, NASA’s Constellation program manager,will testify at the hearing, along with Brett Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Other panelists include former NASA astronaut and retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas Stafford; NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel member John Marshall;  NASA safety and mission assurance chief Bryan O’Connor; and Joseph Fragola of Herndon, Va.-based information architecture company Valador Inc.

Also on Dec. 2, the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation safety subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), will address Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight of the emerging space tourism industry and the potential conflict between the FAA’s dual role of ensuring aviation safety and promoting the burgeoning commercial space market. At press time, the subcommittee had yet to release its hearing charter or list of witnesses.