A university-based review of astronaut safety has flagged issues, concerns, and has suggested safety enhancements for the space shuttle and International Space Station programs.

The wide-ranging report is targeted at making human space travel less hazardous, calling for a shut down of the space shuttle program as soon as possible and limiting some aspects of International Space Station construction.

Titled Space Safety Report: Vulnerabilities and Risk Reduction In U.S. Human Space Flight Programs the independent assessment was prepared by the Space and Advanced Communications Research Institute (SACRI) of George Washington (GW) University in Washington, D.C. The just-issued research report was conducted for the Space Shuttle Children's Fund under a two year $300,000 grant.

The lengthy, 8-section interdisciplinary academic study represents a combined cumulative effort by a dozen faculty and graduate students, undertaken during 2004 into early 2005, delving into human space flight safety in the past, present and into the future.

Lead investigator for the space safety report is Joseph Pelton, a research professor with the Institute for Applied Space Research at the George Washington University. "We think there are ways of improving astronaut safety and saving the taxpayers a significant amount of money," Pelton told SPACE.com.

"The big issue here is...does NASA have a program that gets the support of the person on the street? Is anyone trying to develop a fresh look at where we are now...because now is a very good time for stock taking," Pelton said.

Concerns and potential risks

The report takes a look at the management, technical and operational aspects of all NASA astronaut-related programs, sharply focusing on the space shuttle program, the International Space Station, and various human spacecraft and escape vehicles that have been initiated by NASA within the past fifteen years.

As part of its assessment the team reviewed the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), along with the new private entrepreneurial programs to develop human access to space.

While saluting NASA's efforts stemming from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's (CAIB) recommendations following the loss of Columbia and its crew on February 1, 2003, the GW study team found "both concerns and potential risks" that may be of importance, even after the recommendations of the CAIB have been implemented.

"Our report is indeed a call to action to work toward retiring as soon as feasible the aging shuttle fleet for human space flight, i.e. before 2010 if possible." Furthermore, the report explains, from a safety perspective the GW study team believes that 30 or more additional launches of the shuttle system with a full crew represent "an increasingly unacceptable risk for an aging system" that may have something like a 1-in-50 to 1-in-60 chance of a 'category one' failure with every launch.

In NASA terms, a "Criticality 1" failure could result in loss of vehicle, loss of crew.

Heavy lifting

Among key findings, the GW study team reports:

  • A replacement crew vehicle system for the shuttle should be developed as soon as possible. Any financial benefits resulting from shutting down of the shuttle at a somewhat earlier date should be reinvested in the earlier development of the replacement vehicle or other system requirements of President Bush's "Moon, Mars and Beyond" space vision.
  • In general, robotically controlled cargo vehicles should in the future do the heavy lifting into space. Doing so minimizes astronaut risk. Specially designed crew vehicles should fly separately or in tandem with cargo vehicles and should provide a "full envelope" - all phases of flight -- escape mode for the crew.
  • Serious consideration should be given to the feasibility of converting and operating one or more of the orbiters as a "robotic" cargo vehicle. This could reduce risk to astronauts on missions where crews were not essential and increase cargo lift capability.
  • Explore reducing the number of remaining flights for the shuttle by limiting some aspects of International Space Station construction. This should be considered in concert with the international partners and should not involve reduction of flights related to major international subsystems, specifically European and Japanese elements.
  • Evolution to launch systems that use new technology such as ion engines, tethers, or electrical and nuclear propulsion systems instead of "chemical explosions" may represent the key to providing safer and more reliable access to space in the future.

Extended safe haven

The report underscores the lack of an effective escape capability from the International Space Station (ISS) or the ability to use the ISS as an extended safe haven when the Shuttle is not available - tagging this fact as a "major concern".

To address this issue, the study team calls for re-activation of NASA's scuttled X-38 lifeboat program or obtaining of U.S. legislative authority and funding to buy additional Russian-supplied Soyuz vehicles - the current model as well as the expanded crew-carrying design now being touted by Russian space designers.

The GW report points to the newly-formed International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety as a way to cut across national boundaries and provide for a more integrated ISS operational process for safety and emergency procedures. This association was formed last year and is dedicated to furthering international cooperation and scientific advancement in the field of space systems safety. The first meeting of the group is being held this coming October in Nice, France.

Historical lessons for the future

Current plans by NASA to develop the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) are also reviewed by the GW study team. The CEV is central to moving explorers beyond low Earth orbit, back to the Moon, to Mars and other destinations.

"It is important that historical lessons from the shuttle be learned and applied to future planning," the report notes. Key aspects in this regard -- specifically pointing to the Crew Exploration Vehicle -- include: don't combine too many missions and capabilities; ensure the ongoing infusion of new technology; provide complete launch-to-land escape capability; and seek simplicity of design, operation and retrofit of certain systems.

Planting a highly-reliable CEV on top of a launch vehicle that is not as highly rated could still represent a "questionable" system, the study suggests.

Cashing in on entrepreneurial capital

Study leader, Pelton, said there was "an astonishing degree of agreement" among those questioned by the team -- including NASA officials, ex-NASA officials, astronauts, entrepreneurs - about the idea of letting new private space initiatives bloom.

In taking a look at private space initiatives, the study appraises new human-carrying space capabilities, space tourism and even private "spacehabs" that are moving forward in response to "prize awards". The study team notes that there is the specter of new "entrepreneurial capital" and new regulatory authority provided to the Federal Aviation Administration in this arena.

The study contends there are "new paradigms" with regard to "private" astronauts and even approaches to passenger liability, insurance, and risk assessment. "This may offer NASA new opportunities in the future. It may eventually also allow NASA's 'manned space and astronaut' programs to work in parallel or competition with private ventures. This may not reduce risk but nevertheless help redefine 'public' and 'private' safety definitions and accepted standards for safety performance."

As for the longer-term future of astronaut safety, developing the safest transportation systems may not be the greatest challenge, the study team reports. Instead the prime issues may relate to protecting astronauts in space from debris, micro-meteorites, comets, radiation, zero and/or low gravity environments, and thus a move toward the more difficult aim of long-term survival in space.

Space exploration: not risk-free

"Exploration is one of the hallmark characteristics of a dynamic civilization," the GW study concludes. "From Lewis and Clark's travels to the first Moon landing, this willingness to define and explore new frontiers is a basic American trait. We know that the exploration of space by humans is not risk-free. Nor will major risks soon be eliminated. Yet, we think that this report, if considered and acted on, can help to make future space exploration and travel safer."

Pelton said that the Challenger accident in 1986 should have spurred a rethink of the space program, both in terms of moving toward a shuttle replacement and a more modularized space station for easier construction in times of shuttle groundings.

"In terms of grounding the shuttle, we've lost more than 5 years now after Challenger and now Columbia. Essentially, we've been twiddling our thumbs so to speak," Pelton said.

The final report has not as yet been briefed to NASA, Pelton said, but added that he would embrace an invitation to discuss its findings with the new NASA Administrator, as well as Congress.

"Some people do say NASA is broken and can't be fixed. I don't believe that," Pelton said. "There are reasonable suggestions of things that can be done without totally taking a sledge hammer to everything that they are trying to do."

The GW report was commissioned by the Space Shuttle Children's Fund. According to a link provided to their web site, the non-profit, tax exempt Fund was founded on the day after the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy in 1986. It was established "to provide for the health, education, and support of the children of the astronauts who perished in the Challenger tragedy and of astronauts who might perish in the future while involved actively in participating in space exploration and travel conducted under the auspices of NASA."

For access to the full report go to: http://www.spacesafety.org/