Congress Examines Astronaut Safety on Commercial Spaceships
SpaceX's first Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical atop its Space Launch Complex 40 pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Jan. 2009.
Credit: SpaceX

Lawmakers on Wednesday said NASA must continue to improve astronaut crew safety on its new shuttle-replacing rocket, as well as on promising commercial vehicles that could ferry crews to orbit.

In a House subcommittee hearing, NASA officials told congressional representatives that its new Ares rockets should be 10 times safer than the space shuttles they are intended to replace. Committee members also stressed that NASA must set guidelines for commercial boosters before astronauts can ride them into space.

?Much has been said about the potential for future plans in recent months, but there has been precious little discussion about safety,? said Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), who chairs the space and aeronautics subcommittee for the House Committee on Science and Technology.

Giffords, who is married to astronaut Mark Kelly, said Wednesday?s hearing with NASA and spaceflight experts would play a role in future discussions on NASA?s plan to replace the aging shuttle fleet with newer, safer rockets.  That plan is under scrutiny by the Obama administration, which received a review of NASA?s exploration goals from a White House-appointed committee in October.

Meanwhile, NASA has set aside $50 million to support the development of commercial crew transportation to the space station that could ease the gap between the shuttle fleet?s retirement and the first Orion flights. In the recent report, the White House-appointed committee recommended more investment, about $5 billion, in commercial crew-carrying spacecraft.

NASA?s future plans

NASA currently plans to fly five more shuttle missions in 2010 before retiring its three remaining orbiters to make way for their successor - the Orion spacecraft and the Ares rockets to launch them. The agency launched its first suborbital test flight in late October using a demo version of the new Ares I rocket.

?Simply put, safety is a top priority in NASA?s Constellation program,? said Jeff Hanley, who leads Constellation, which is in charge of the Orion vehicles and their Ares rockets.

NASA?s space shuttle program aims for a safety threshold that allows a 1-in-100 chance of a launch disaster. Astronauts and NASA officials want to boost that safety margin to a 1-in-1,000 chance for any future vehicles, said veteran astronaut Tom Stafford, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who flew missions on NASA?s Gemini and Apollo spacecraft.

Unlike NASA?s space shuttles, the Ares I rocket will have a launch abort system designed to pull an Orion crew capsule to safety in the event of an emergency at liftoff.

Commercial spaceship safety

NASA has said the Orion and Ares vehicles will be ready for manned flights by 2015, but the independent White House committee?s report stated that, given the agency?s current available budget, the new spacecraft won?t be ready for crewed operations until 2017. Commercial crew vehicles, the committee stated, could be ready by 2016.

Two U.S. companies, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp., are already building unmanned cargo ships under separate contracts with NASA worth about $3.5 billion in all to deliver supplies to the International Space Station after the shuttle fleet retires. They and other firms have also announced intentions to build craft capable of carrying humans to orbit.

Bryan O?Connor, a veteran shuttle commander and NASA?s safety chief, said the agency has provided its safety requirements to those firms, but formal discussions over human-rating a commercial spacecraft have not yet begun. The agency plans to use some federal stimulus funds to develop concise technical requirements for non-NASA spacecraft builders, as well as set up some form of oversight, he added.

?The longer we wait to start that process of commercial crew activities, the longer it will take us in terms of shortening any gap,? Brett Alexander, head of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told the House subcommittee.

At the same time of Wednesday?s House science subcommittee hearing, the House committee for transportation and infrastructure met to take testimony from commercial spaceflight experts on the maturity of privately developed spacecraft.

?While there is excitement surrounding the possibilities for commercial space transportation, the technology and the industry are very new and somewhat untested,? the transportation committee said in its summary.

Since 1989, there have been 19 launch failures, aborts or scrubs of commercial boosters, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). But in the last eight years, there have been only six failures in 66 launches, a marked improvement, the transportation committee said.

A tailored spaceship

In the safety hearing, Alexander said that while the FAA will likely watch over actual flights of commercially-built manned spacecraft, NASA as the customer would have to tailor its requirements for crew vehicles to fit those private vehicles.

?There is no cookie-cutter approach to safety in space, nor is it a given,? said John Marshall, a member of NASA?s independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), during the hearing. ?The ASAP strongly believes that specific criteria should be developed to establish how safe is safe enough.?

O?Connor said it took NASA about eight months to tailor its human-rated safety requirements to the in-house Orion spacecraft and its Ares I rocket. It took three years before NASA engineers were comfortable enough with Russia?s Soyuz vehicle to allow astronauts to fly on them. Today, Soyuz spacecraft are the standard ferry ships for space station crews.

It would take up to six years, O?Connor said, to adapt Orion?s safety specs to fly on a different rocket such as the Atlas 5 or Delta 4 Heavy boosters currently used to launch unmanned satellites to orbit.

But Alexander stressed that the six-year estimate is for Orion only. A smaller, commercially-built crewed spacecraft could take as little as three years to meld with NASA?s guidelines, he said.

To date, NASA has seen two fatal disasters over the course of its 129 shuttle flights since 1981. The first occurred during the January 1986 launch of the shuttle Challenger, killing seven astronauts. In February 2003, the shuttle Columbia and its seven-member crew were lost during re-entry due to wing heat shield damage sustained during their launch two weeks earlier.

Since the Columbia disaster, NASA has worked to maintain a constant vigilance for astronaut safety on its remaining shuttle flights.

?We treat every crewed spaceflight like an engineering test flight,? O?Connor said.

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