Unintended Consequences for NASA


Many of us have long dreamed about the day when ordinary citizens could visit Earth orbit in a safe, low-cost and routine manner. Not fully realizing the extent to which launching people into orbit is truly difficult, dangerous and expensive, some came to believe it was right around the corner.

Last February, policy people at NASA and the White House announced a fundamental change in NASA’s human space program. In the future, they said, human transportation to the international space station would be accomplished by commercial companies, “freeing NASA to concentrate on human exploration” beyond Earth orbit, implying that cost savings were anticipated and the agency’s future budgets for human exploration would benefit from these savings. New flight systems would be expected to be safer and cheaper.

NASA would pay for at least two commercial crew flight companies to provide competition. They would be expected to invest significant amounts of their own money to ensure that they have “some skin in the game.”

Several challenges have appeared:

  • Safety. The American people have come to expect perfect crew safety, and are very unforgiving of a failure when an astronaut loses his or her life. Our astronauts are seen as representatives of the best of America, and any fatal accident is viewed as a failure of U.S. technology and world leadership in space. Astronaut safety is always a top priority and cannot be compromised.

On a new transport aircraft, manufacturers perform dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of test flights during which flight instrumentation is closely monitored. Each anomaly is given detailed post-flight examination, with appropriate changes incorporated to reduce or eliminate the associated risk of failure. The same process is applied to space flights, except that launch costs prohibit more than a few test flights, and these must be flown with the recognition that the first dozen and more flights carry increased risk.

The shuttle and Soyuz launch and landing systems have each accomplished well over a hundred successful flights, with reliability and safety improving with each flight.

Proponents of new flight systems claim that a launch escape system would produce a large improvement in overall crew safety. However, this is open to question, since launch escape systems can expose crews to unexpected and unwarranted aborts, turning a normally successful launch into a risky situation. Escape systems probably will not be given adequate test flights because escape system tests are both expensive and risky in themselves.

An adequate test flight program plus flight experience with continued vigilance is the only way to achieve and prove high levels of reliability and crew safety.

  • Incentives. In the inevitable conflict between safety and cost, NASA always gives a very high priority to crew safety. It is difficult to see how a commercial crew launch company can be trusted to independently operate with the same flight safety priority as NASA. Conversely, if there is intensive NASA oversight and approval authority during this process, the company may feel it will be unable to control costs, and much of the expected savings of a commercial crew launch operation could be eroded.
  • Markets for crew launch services. With significant safety risk and costs of $40 million to $60 million for each passenger or tourist for a few days in orbit, there likely will be few paying customers.

It is doubtful that any U.S. private company would invest more than a token amount unless NASA would essentially guarantee either a profit or freedom from financial risk.

  • Cost. Forgotten in cost forecasts of Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) are the multiple uncrewed test flights absolutely required to uncover potentially critical flaws before each system has demonstrated an acceptable level of crew safety. A “safety first” flight test program could require a dozen or more test flights. Landings on both land and water are additional operations in which safety must be proved with uncrewed test flights.

With a proper test flight program, expert data analyses and appropriate design changes, overall reliability could be expected to incrementally increase during the flight test phase.

An adequate flight test program could extend for several years, with the first safe crew launch in the latter part of this decade. NASA could be paying the Russians for crew flights much longer than forecast.

To support NASA’s limited flight schedule to the space station, the agency’s plan is to scrap the existing shuttle orbiters and develop three separate new and untried crew launch systems — Orion on perhaps an Atlas or Delta launcher, plus two more commercial crew flight systems, all paid mostly or totally out of the NASA budget — plus one or two new cargo launch systems developed under the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) program, also paid from a constrained NASA budget.

It is known that up to 90 percent of the yearly operating cost of each flight system is in the fixed cost of facilities, production and operations personnel, who must be kept on salary, even for a minimal flight rate. By replacing the shuttle with four or five separate flight systems, each with its own development cost, test flight program and annual fixed cost, the total real cost to NASA could well exceed that of the shuttle.

The bottom line: Commercial cargo launches may work quite well, as they have for years in launching communications satellites; however, it is a whole new ball game when the highest levels of crew safety must be assured.

Rather than saving money by “freeing NASA to concentrate on human exploration,” the CCDev project likely will compete for funds in NASA’s human spaceflight budget for many years to come. This new policy is likely to result in unintended consequences.


O. Glenn Smith is a former manager of shuttle systems engineering at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.