With all apologies to House Transportation Committee’s hearing on commercial space transportation, arguably the more interesting—or, at least, potentially more contentious—space-related hearing this morning will be two floors up in the Rayburn House Office Building, where the space subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee will examine the issue of the safety of human spaceflight. The committee has posted the hearing charter, which includes a detailed overview of the hearing topic and issues it plans to cover.
A review of the charter makes it clear that a major emphasis of the hearing will be whether commercial providers can meet NASA’s safety requirements, and even whether it’s in the best interest of such ventures to pursue ISS crew transportation services given their very early stage of development. Some sample issues:
- What would be the safety implications of terminating the government crew transportation system currently under development in favor of relying on as-yet-to-be-developed commercially provided crew transportation services? What would the government be able to do, if anything, to ensure that no reduction in planned safety levels occurred as a result?
- What do potential commercial crew transportation services providers consider to be an acceptable safety standard to which potential commercial providers must conform if their space transportation systems were to be chosen by NASA to carry its astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS? Would the same safety standard be used for non-NASA commercial human transportation missions?
- If a policy decision were made to require NASA to rely solely on commercial crew transfer services, which would have to meet NASA’s safety requirements to be considered for use by NASA astronauts, what impact would that have on the ability of emerging space companies to pursue innovation and design improvements made possible [as the industry has argued] by the accumulation of flight experience gained from commencing revenue operations unconstrained by a prior safety certification regime? Would it be in the interest of the emerging commercial orbital crew transportation industry to have to be reliant on the government as its primary/sole customer at this stage in its development?
This debate is also played out in dueling op-eds in this week’s issue of Space News (subscription required). In one, Congressman Ralph Hall, ranking member of the full science committee, warns that commercial crew options can’t be developed in time to fill the gap between shuttle and Ares/Orion. “[I]t is important to note that Congress did not endorse a commercial crew option as an appropriate solution for the United States to meet our responsibilities and commitments to our international partners. A commercial crew capability simply could not be properly evaluated and ready in time to safely fly our astronauts during the gap,” he writes. (A copy of his op-ed is freely available on the committee’s Republican caucus site). “As I said, astronaut safety must be the top priority.”
Patti Grace Smith, former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, takes a different view. “Several policymakers seem to make the unwarranted leap of logic that if commercial space travel costs less than a government program, it is inherently less safe,” she writes, adding that during her time at the FAA, “I never had any serious commercial human spaceflight company come to me with plans for a launch vehicle that would be less safe than existing NASA systems, and they had no less commitment to maintaining safety at the highest level.”
The hearing will also take a look at the safety of the currently-planned successor to the shuttle, the Ares 1. There could be some tough questions for that system, though. The Orlando Sentinel noted that the 2005 ESAS study found that there should be at least seven uncrewed flights of the vehicle before it should carry a crewed Orion spacecraft, yet current plans call for only a single unmanned test flight. (Jeff Hanley, Constellation program manager and one of the witnesses at today’s hearing, explained to the Sentinel that “advances in engineering risk assessments” suggest the first crewed Ares 1/Orion flight will have a risk “on par” with the shuttle system today.) And NASA Watch notes that a chart used by another witness, Joseph Fragola, during an Augustine committee public meeting was different from an internal version, which showed that the Ares 1 risk falls short of the target of 1-in-1,000 for loss of crew set by the astronaut office.
So, yes, it should be an interesting hearing this morning. Whether it will change many minds on the issue, though, is another question entirely.