ASAP To Keep Eye on NASA’s Safety Review of Commercial Suborbital Flights

ASAP To Keep Eye on NASA’s Safety Review of Commercial Suborbital Flights

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) will be keeping on eye on how NASA goes about its safety review of commercial suborbital vehicles before putting agency personnel onboard. NASA revealed last month that it plans to fly astronauts and other employees on systems like Blue Origin’s New Shepard or Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

On June 23, NASA announced creation of a Suborbital Crew (SubC) office within its Commercial Crew Program to “perform a system qualification, or safety assessment, to enable NASA astronauts, principal investigators and other NASA personnel” to fly on suborbital missions. NASA already has flown payloads on such flights. Now scientists would be able to accompany their experiments. The flights could also be used for astronaut training.

During its meeting last week, ASAP member Don McErlean said NASA needs to examine the safety of these services before putting its personnel onboard.

“As a third party, contracting on behalf of their personnel, we do believe that NASA has a responsibility to examine the safety posture of these services, in a similar manner as they have had to do for the commercial crew program providers, before allowing NASA personnel to fly on the vehicles.  Alternatively, NASA could work with another government entity, such as the FAA, to provide such certification or flight approval.  The total extent of this safety review remains to be determined; however, there is little doubt that it will be required.  The Panel will continue to review this situation in the future.” — ASAP

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) facilitates, regulates and promotes commercial space launches and reentries. In 2004, Congress sharply limited its ability to regulate commercial human spaceflight, however, convinced that tough regulations might stifle an emerging industry. Commercial human spaceflight advocates want the business to be treated like airplane flights were in the barnstorming era where anyone could fly who had the money and was willing to take the risk.

The 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments require commercial human spaceflight companies only to educate passengers about those risks and obtain their written “informed consent.”  While leaving open the possibility of stricter regulations in the future, the law establishes a “learning period,” or “moratorium” prohibiting FAA from proposing any other regulations except for very narrow reasons. The learning period was to expire in 2012, but as the years passed and not a single commercial human spaceflight took place, Congress extended it several times. Most recently, the 2015 Commercial Space Launch and Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) pushed it out to October 1, 2023.

As amended by CSLCA, the law creates three categories of personnel aboard a commercial spaceflight: crew (employees of the company); government astronauts (as designated by NASA and a government employee performing a federal function or an international partner astronaut); and space flight participants (everyone else).

ASAP wants to know how NASA will ensure the suborbital flights are safe for its personnel. NASA has an extensive certification process for orbital flights as part of the commercial crew program under which SpaceX and Boeing are developing systems to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.  SpaceX’s crewed flight test, Demo-2, is underway right now, the last step towards certification of that system for operational missions.

NASA does not want such an involved process for suborbital missions, however, hence the decision for the SubC office to look at a “system qualification, or safety assessment,” working with FAA and the commercial providers.

George Nield, a member of ASAP and former head of FAA/AST, told after the meeting that NASA is already talking with the FAA.

“NASA is in the process of considering whether it would be possible to find a middle ground between informed consent and the commercial crew certification process. They are talking with the FAA on what that could look like. As one possible example, if Congress were willing to end the moratorium earlier than 2023, perhaps the FAA could implement some additional regulations to fill that gap.” — George Nield

Considering the challenges Congress is facing passing any commercial space legislation and the Trump Administration’s anti-regulatory philosophy, the odds of legislation being enacted to lift the moratorium seem pretty low at the moment.

Yet commercial human spaceflights are close at hand.  Virgin Galactic showcased the cabin of its SpaceShipTwo just today.

CSLCA encouraged the commercial human spaceflight industry to develop voluntary consensus safety standards for all three categories of occupants — crew, government astronauts, and space flight participants.  The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) has been working with ASTM International (the American Society for Testing and Materials) to develop such standards since 2016.  In an interview today, CSF President Eric Stallmer said they are making steady progress and the first standards may be published sometime this year.

“We continue to work with FAA/AST within ASTM’s F47 committee to prioritize areas for current standards development as well as topics for future standards so that we can focus our limited resources on those issues and remain responsive to Congress’ direction in the 2015 CSLCA to pursue the development of industry consensus standards.”  — Eric Stallmer

Until the voluntary standards are in place — and they will be voluntary in any case — it is up to each company to set its own standards. Stallmer added that CSF looks forward to how NASA’s evaluation of existing industry processes “will provide confidence to other decision-makers.”

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