NASA’s Safety Bureaucracy Tips the Scales Against Private Space

By | 2018-01-31T19:47:09+00:00 January 31st, 2018|
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In the past two weeks, two separate reports have come out suggesting that the commercial manned capsules SpaceX and Boeing are building to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station for NASA have serious safety issues that could cause significant delays before either company can begin operations.

Both reports have since been used both by politicians and industry experts to attack these commercial ventures. SpaceX, in particular, has come into sharp focus as the subject of this criticism.

To all this I say, hogwash!

What both reports actually demonstrate is that the bureaucrats in Washington have very little interest in safety, but instead are more focused on putting their thumbs on the scale in order specifically to harm these private efforts—especially SpaceX’s. One report in particular, by NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), was especially hostile to these private efforts, even as it remained completely unconcerned about similar but far worse safety issues that exist with NASA’s government-built and competing SLS and Orion programs.

Both reports also illustrated starkly the complete lack of understanding that the Washington community has for the nature of exploration, the very task that NASA was founded to spearhead. The result is a bureaucratic culture that makes the manned exploration of space by the United States practically impossible.

If things do not change, expect this country to be bypassed in the coming decades by the rest of the world as the solar system is colonized and settled.

The ASAP report, its 2017 annual review, provided a full summary of the safety issues in NASA’s projects that it considered important enough to merit special attention. Another report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) focused specifically on the project status of the SpaceX and Boeing commercial manned capsules.

Both reports concluded that there were serious questions with the rockets SpaceX and Boeing plan to use to launch their manned capsules. Both suggested that the present launch schedules for these rockets are unrealistic, and that these safety issues remain unresolved.

At first glance, the problems the two reports had with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 might seem reasonable. In September 2016 SpaceX had been preparing to launch a commercial satellite when there was a sudden explosion on the launchpad, destroying the rocket and satellite. The subsequent investigation revealed that the cause of the explosion was the failure of a helium tank within the rocket’s first stage oxygen tank. This helium is used to keep the oxygen tank pressurized as the oxygen is pumped out. The temperature difference between the helium tank and the liquid oxygen in the larger tank around it caused oxygen to solidify under the helium tank’s insulation, eventually causing a tank failure and the explosion. To prevent this from recurring, SpaceX developed new procedures in how it fueled the rocket, procedures that have now been used successfully in 19 subsequent launches.

Both the GAO and ASAP however question this new fueling procedure, believing that SpaceX as yet does not have an “adequate understanding” of all the issues involved. These doubts are compounded because SpaceX’s fueling procedure will require it to fill the tanks after the astronauts have boarded the rocket so that the fuel can be kept cold and dense to maximize performance.

Previous NASA policy was to fuel the rocket first, then board the astronauts, and ASAP, GAO, and NASA all seem to want to keep that policy. During the shuttle era the fuel-first approach made sense, since the shuttle had no launch abort capability to get astronauts safely away from the shuttle should something go wrong during fueling. The less time the astronauts spent on the shuttle, the safer they were.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule however will have a launch abort capability. If something goes wrong, the capsule will be able quickly to separate from the rocket and launch itself away, returning to Earth gently with its parachutes.

Thus, the safest place for the astronauts when fuel is being loaded into the rocket would be in the capsule. Making them board after the rocket has been fueled would expose them to much greater risk, should something go wrong during that boarding process.

To meet the concerns expressed in these two reports, NASA is demanding that SpaceX fly seven special test flights before the agency will certify it as safe. This despite the fact that since the September 1 launchpad explosion SpaceX has already completed 19 successful launches, all using their new fueling approach. To any reasonable person it would appear that they have already demonstrated that it works, and reliably.

GAO and ASAP did not just throw barriers up against SpaceX. Both also raised questions about the use of ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket by Boeing to launch their Starliner capsule. That rocket presently uses a Russian engine in its first stage, and because Russia limits access to their manufacturing process for proprietary reasons, NASA cannot “certify” the safety of that engine.

This concern however seems quite strange, considering that this same rocket has now launched seventy-five times without any problems from this Russian engine. Such a track record should demonstrate that engine’s reliability. To NASA and these agencies, however, this reasonable position is unacceptable, and they thus threatened to delay their approval of the Atlas 5 indefinitely.

With all these objections, it surely appears that GAO, ASAP, and NASA would prefer the U.S. remain stuck on the ground, unable to launch its own astronauts, if there was even the slightest chance that something might go wrong.

This cautious approach is by definition the very antithesis of what it means to explore the unknown.

Ironically, in its safety review of NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion capsule, ASAP seem to abandon all caution. Both have been in development since 2004 at a cost that is going to exceed $43 billion before their first manned flight in 2023.

Both the SLS rocket and Orion capsule have a number of fundamental and significant safety issues. For example, the upper stage of the SLS rocket will not be ready for that rocket’s first unmanned flight, presently scheduled for 2019. Its first use will occur with the rocket’s second flight in 2023, which will also be that rocket’s first manned flight. ASAP apparently does not see a problem with putting humans in space using an upper stage and engine that have never flown previously, as long as that rocket is SLS.

ASAP also didn’t seem bothered that any version of SLS will have just flown once, not 19 times like the Falcon 9 or 75 times like the Atlas 5, when it makes its first manned flight. Furthermore, neither NASA nor ASAP are requiring a full series of SLS/Orion launch abort tests, tests that the agencies are requiring of both SpaceX and Boeing.

Nor does NASA or ASAP seem worried that the Orion manned capsule will have only flown once with its new heat shield when NASA puts humans on it in 2023. The only test flight so far of Orion, in 2014, did not have the heat shield they now plan on using.

For ASAP to accept all these first SLS/Orion flights with humans on board seems to defy their stated reasons for caution concerning the private rockets, doesn’t it?

In fact, the only real issue that ASAP seems to have with the SLS/Orion program is that it isn’t funded at the level they would prefer, even though this NASA project has been given ten times the funds provided to the commercial companies, and after almost a decade and a half of development is still riddled with significant safety issues and an inability to fly.

This bias against private space exploration and in favor of NASA’s big bloated programs is highlighted best by the issue of paperwork. Both GAO and ASAP note in their reports that one of the major reasons the manned commercial capsules from Boeing and SpaceX might be delayed is that NASA might not have the manpower to complete the paperwork required to get both certified and approved.

This fact is so ridiculous that it bears repeating. NASA, GAO, and ASAP might force a delay in the launch of new American-made commercial manned capsules because NASA will not have completed the paperwork.

Essentially, this entire situation reveals the absurdity of trying to do space exploration under NASA’s current bureaucratic framework. Both ASAP and GAO practically demand a risk-free space effort from the projects of the commercial companies, and both are quite willing to allow schedules to drag on forever to achieve this. At the same time ASAP and GAO are willing to look the other way about serious safety violations if the project happens to be favored by NASA and many in Congress, as is SLS and Orion.

Such favoritism is unacceptable, even if it is to be expected in the corrupt culture that now dominates Washington.

SpaceX has repeatedly demonstrated it can fly its rocket. It should be allowed to do so.

Boeing has repeatedly demonstrated it can fly its rocket. It should be allowed to do so.

And NASA has repeatedly demonstrated that its SLS rocket and Orion capsule are not ready to fly. The government should stop pretending otherwise and stop wasting money on each.

This whole complicated situation raises a further more fundamental point. NASA is supposed to be in the business of exploration, which by definition means NASA is exploring the unknown. In the unknown, the risks—and the failures —are to be expected and accepted. They are exactly what are required in order to learn and improve. If you try to eliminate them before you fly, you will never fly.

Worse, if you allow government bureaucrats to pick and choose the programs and products you can use for exploration it will become impossible for anything to be accomplished. You will eliminate the freedom to innovate, and will squelch any real exploration before it is even born.

Imagine for example if we had had this kind of review in the 1800s, and the reviewers in Washington did not like the privately built but very affordable Conastoga wagon, preferring instead a government-built model:

The Government Safety Panel of Covered Wagon Design (GSPCWD) has found that these privately built Conestoga wagons do not have adequate safety protections against Indian attacks. The canvas walls cannot protect against arrows, and can burn too easily. Moreover, the wagon has too high a center of gravity, and can roll over too quickly. Before any settlers can move west using this vehicle it will have to be redesigned.

Furthermore, these redesigns must wait until the reviewing committee can complete its reports on the issues of road conditions, food allocations, and safety. Until those reports are completed and released, no Conastoga wagon will be allowed on the Orgeon trail.

The GSPCWD however has determined that the government’s Wagon-Train Mobile Vehicle (WTMV) program is far safer, though it needs more money for its design to be completed. Moreover, unlike the Conastoga wagon the WTMV has a firm construction schedule, and will be ready for its first trip to Oregon in about six years.

Exploration involves risks. More important, exploration requires freedom, the freedom to accept those risks while doing everything reasonable to address them while moving forward quickly and practically.

If you try to eliminate those risks by creating a bureaucracy to dictate the terms of exploration, you also eliminate the freedom necessary to make that exploration possible.

Unfortunately, we have chosen to create just such a bureaucracy. If we continue to allow this approach to remain in charge, the U.S. space program is never going to go anywhere.

About the Author:

Robert Zimmerman
Robert Zimmerman is a space historian, science journalist, and the author of Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8. He is also the author of the just released new science fiction novel, Pioneer, an alien first contact story set two hundred years in the future when the settlement and colonization of the solar system is finally taking hold. He also writes daily on space, science, and culture at his website, Behind the Black.