Industry and Government Leaders Agree Safety First for Commercial Crew

Industry and Government Leaders Agree Safety First for Commercial Crew

Key players in implementing President Obama’s plan to turn human spaceflight over to the commercial sector met Thursday to discuss human rating requirements for commercial crew space vehicles during a roundtable hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). The first phase of a much needed debate to push forward the process that would allow NASA astronauts and – in the future – ordinary people to board commercial space vehicles centered on a variety of complex issues. In the end, there appeared to be consensus on at least one thing: safety is the first priority.

Bryan O’Connor, former astronaut and Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance at NASA, said that while the government would strive not to over-regulate, existing law like the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, which requires a presidential commission to investigate accidents, reminds government of its “responsibility of not backing up too much.” He explained that NASA’s role in promoting safety will begin with the upcoming release of a Request for Information (RFI) on NASA’s draft human rating requirements. Mr. O’Connor said they reflected NASA’s first take at the safety requirements the agency itself would look to address if it were in the commercial companies’ shoes. Feedback from potential contractors will initiate a discussion on steps to integrate and adapt these requirements into the commercial systems now under development. He likened the process to what NASA went through to determine that astronauts could safely fly on Russia’s Soyuz launch vehicle — not strict compliance, but equivalence.

The “safety first” philosophy also reflects the necessity that safety requirements be integrated early in the design process because retrofitting them into an existing system is almost impossible. According to Ken Bowersox, another former astronaut and Vice President of Astronaut Safety and Mission Assurance Development at SpaceX, his company jumpstarted the human rating requirement process by looking at NASA’s internal requirements, as well as previous and existing crew transportation vehicles – such as the Apollo and the Soyuz – for the early design of the Falcon 9 and its Dragon spacecraft. The company hopes that this strategy will help it adapt and respond to NASA’s safety requirements more easily.

Adaptation is key, since history has demonstrated that strict compliance is not necessarily the best or safest option. Mr. O’Connor reiterated what he sees as the wisdom of following NASA’s “Soyuz thinking” of not trying to force a redesign on the differences between Soyuz and NASA’s own way of doing things. The questions become: Is this system acceptable? Is this issue a showstopper? Or is it an acceptable risk?

Another theme of the discussion was that risk and safety are not at opposite ends of the spectrum. “Safety is not an absolute,” cautioned Dr. George Nield, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration. “All transportation involves risks,” he added, explaining that even a vehicle built completely by NASA should not be assumed to be safe and, least of all, risk-free. The need is to “understand and accept those risks before you fly,” a process that will require dialogue within the community to come up with a consensus on standards, practices, and principles.

The debate will continue as stakeholders look for common ground in what Ken Reightler, Senior Vice President of Lockheed Martin Space Operations and another former astronaut, described as the “philosophy” or “mind-set” of safety. Mr. O’Connor explained that one often unspoken and perhaps misunderstood assumption of people involved in spaceflight is that the mission and the safety of the people carrying it out are not in competition, but go hand in hand. He said he fears that when the public hears debates like this one with an emphasis on safety, “people think we’re saying that [safety] is our mission,” but the only way to be completely safe is for people to not fly into space, and no one is suggesting that. He joked that the way he likes to think about it is that “safety is the remora fish in the shark of exploration,” a reference to the symbiotic relationship between remora fish that attach themselves to and eat parasites off of sharks, benefitting both.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.