A few notes on the human spaceflight hearing

Yesterday’s hearing on human spaceflight safety by the House Science and Technology Committee’s space subcommittee didn’t have a lot of surprises: the standing of Ares 1 as safer than the shuttle (or potential EELV- or shuttle-derived alternatives) was affirmed by some of the panelists, while the sole representative of the commercial sector, Brett Alexander, made the case that commercial systems can be safe and be ready to enter service before Constellation is ready. “Based on what we heard today,” subcommittee chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords said at the end of the hearing, “I see no justification for a change in direction on safety-related grounds.”

A sticking point for many in the hearing that while it was ostensibly intended to compare the safety of commercial systems versus that planned for Ares 1/Orion, Alexander was the only commercial witness of six, with no participation from companies like SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, or ULA, who have all talked at one point or another about building and/or launching commercial crew vehicles. (The Orlando Sentinel went so far as to call the hearing a “pro-Constellation rally”.) That dichotomy became clear when Giffords asked the entire panel two questions: could commercial crew systems be ready to fly when the Augustine committee suggested they could in its report, and would there be other markets for such systems besides transporting NASA astronauts to the ISS. Alexander was the only one who answered yes to both: the other five were skeptical to varying degrees (or, particularly on the markets question, deferred.) It was particularly ironic to see some of the panelists say there would be no additional markets for a commercial crew system when Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace—a company that would be a likely customer for such a system to service its planned orbital habitats—was sitting in the first row of the audience.

One point that Alexander tried to get across is that it should not be a competition between Ares 1 and commercial crew systems. “I don’t believe that Ares/Orion and commercial crew are competitive. I think that you need to do both,” he said, adding that commercial crew could carry out ISS servicing at a lower cost that Constellation and free up NASA to focus on exploration beyond LEO. Those comments were echoed by Giffords late in the hearing: “I hope that people don’t think that this is a competition of commercial versus NASA; it is simply not that.” However, she emphasized on more than one occasion that this was something that needed to be judged on its merits and not be swayed by “advocacy or unexamined optimism”, particularly in an era of limited resources. Such analysis will require more than just this two-and-a-half-hour hearing.

14 comments to A few notes on the human spaceflight hearing

  • CharlesHouston

    I was not able to attend, sigh. But doesn’t it sound more like people were there to offer what the design was supposed to do, what the plans were. Ares could be a safe vehicle – given adequate testing, absent the eternal schedule pressure, etc. The members of Congress hardly have the background or time to actually understand the issues, problems, or potential solutions.

  • That NASA Engineer @ KSC

    There is some insight I can offer on this on-going debate about the safety metric in human space flight, specifically in its latest rendition regarding Ares I, as well as in terms of COTS-crew initiatives, or in light of the Orlando Sentinel’s story. Indeed there is quite a “story” to be told here as it mixes up the basic elements that make for a good story, people, money and power.

    For one, yesterday’s House hearing on Human Space Flight Safety showed par-excellence the continuous distraction, side-topics and “on the other hand” type of wandering debate that any discussion on a crew safety metric always seems to produce. I’m surprised the committee members did not end the discussion by asking that future program managers and analysts that testify have just one arm.

    It’s a question in itself worth asking – why something so seemingly simple as losing or not losing a crew, with no grey area in-between, gets so bogged down in such a public forum as to be nearly un-intelligible to committee members and lay-persons alike?

    First, the real requirement that the Constellation program has that is referred to often when speaking of an “order of magnitude improvement over Shuttle”, as regards safety of crew, is the end-to-end mission requirement. That is, the requirement is 1 in 1,000 probability of loss of crew, from launch through landing. It applies specifically to a mission to the International Space Station. The term “order of magnitude” is a notional term, sometimes used in referring to this whole metric, but just as often used when talking only about the ride-up, the launch itself, which is just part of the “mission” (which is the ride-up plus everything else, including the return landing). To put this in some perspective think of the Shuttle as having demonstrated on the ride up a vehicle (and crew) loss rate of about 1 in 100 and then you have the 1 in 1,000. An “order of magnitude” adds a zero.

    But let’s come back to the Constellation requirement of 1 in 1,000, for the entire mission, which means not just Ares 1, but also Orion on–orbit and Orion’s return landing. This value made it into the fight, and I’ll call it a fight because as events have shown it causes a stir even to this day, as a result of the passions of some members of the community who don’t want to hear anymore excuses. Yes, I would say I’m one. It’s a simple yet tangible metric, connecting well to many other goals that are at the root cause of access to space being routine and accessible to many versus being a strictly governmental affair for the deep pocketed. And that’s where the heat comes into the debate.

    When Columbia was lost, then President Bush stated a Vision, yet the Vision never actually emphasized safety on that day in January 14, 2004. If anything it emphasized risk taking and continuity. “The legacy of Columbia must carry on”. This is ironic given the Vision was a direct result of the loss of Columbia. The Vision never said the next system would be much safer. This tidbit developed later, within the Constellation programs “Needs, Goals and Objectives”. And herein began the battle. (You’ll need to Google “Constellations Needs, Goals, Objectives”)

    When the meaning of the Vision had to start being defined more tangibly, when “how” was being defined, many of the team members had participated in previous NASA studies or Shuttle replacement efforts. From the late 90’s the “order of magnitude” improvement in various metrics had been placed into programs from X-vehicles to Space Launch Initiatives ad nausea. A surviving, very ambitious improvement goal that made it into Constellation was crew safety.

    And here is where the plot thickens. The community of assorted advocacies saw an opportunity to preserve some ambition in the goals, in the “ilities” of the next program, and they took it. With Columbia fresh in the collective memory such an ambitious crew safety goal was inserted rather easily in the proper documents, in all the right places. To boot, energies were organized around this strategic goal while giving up on others (like reliability) knowing it would be relatively easily married into the programs documentation and party line, and that this safety goal would actually drag back in other goals that were impossible to push at the time. Pushing for improved cost goals or requirements, for example, has failed left and right. Knowing that the Constellation program was not a done deal, the advocates of the ambitious 1 in 1,000 loss of crew probability on an end-to-end mission to the Station, knew that the requirement would be embraced quickly by a program still trying to sell itself. The guess was correct, and so the requirement got in. The “sell” was on, and safety became part of that. The advocates of the safety requirement also guessed (I’d say correctly as the hearing showed) that this strategic requirement could be much more easily inserted into the program than it could be discarded. The ambitious crew safety requirement would be sticky.

    Now a crew safety metric can be worked in many ways. A Launch Abort System is one way to take a system and improve on crew safety. This would be the “it blew up but we got the crew outta there” approach to safety. But that only addresses the ride up, the first 100 miles as the term was used in the hearing. This tack was predictable, so the crew safety metric inserted was end-to-end, guessing that the program would not want to improve any critical hardware reliability, nor perform any more testing and re-design in test-fail-fix cycles than previous programs (these improvement as requirements could not be sold head-on). It could be counted on that the knee-jerk response of the program would be to let the abort system forgive all sins. Hence the inserted requirement had to be end-to-end, for the whole mission to the Station.

    In practice this is what the program is attempting to do, yet the end-to-end requirement is still alive and kicking. Witness the way in which the Constellation program is trying to turn attention to the ride up, to the first 100 miles, to the climb. This was predictable. Hence the reason the “Ares I” gets mentioned in the hearing, as that’s the part that might fail on the way up, much less so Orion. An end-to-end view would say the story is not over at the end of the ride up. And herein lies the real requirement, the 1 in 1,000 loss of crew probability, end-to-end, for the entire mission to the station, which of course includes Orion, gets dominated by Orion and is calculated all the way to touch-down and crew retrieval.

    Now there are better ways to go about setting metrics for improving and making more accessible the means of access to space (the technology base, the knowledge base, the business model, etc). Yet lacking an embrace of such broader goals, a metric pushing improvement on the end-to-end mission to the Station loss of crew probability to levels far higher than Shuttle is a way of dragging along, by hook or by crook, the other improvement metrics. For example, the reliability of critical hardware must be improved to achieve better crew safety end-to-end. Chances are that if the reliability of critical hardware has been improved then the overall quality of systems is better. Chances are this will reduce failures on the ground during processing. Hardware that is very good at performing in flight, predictably and at high reliability, likely will need little attention during its weeks after delivery from the contractor’s manufacturing plant. So crew safety breeds ground processing reliability. Chances are this increases flight rate at a given cost. So affordability on a recurring basis is enhanced. This too is a natural outcrop, as the test-fail-fix cycles meant spending more up-front, which links to spending less on a recurring basis later. All this leads to sustainability – a productive system characterized by an improved cost picture (fixed and variable), an improved reliability in processing (fewer brokes) and better flight rate at a given cost (productivity).

    This is the really, really complicated way of saying that so long as human space flight is characterized as something filled with both uncertainty and risk then it will never be affordable (as we try to inspect in what was not tested in, nor built in) or routine (as the designed-in reliability is again lacking) or productive (as flight rate suffers at the mercy of costs planned and un-planned).

    This leads to COTS-crew. Knowledge has to spread. A mature industry is also, by definition, one where the product’s knowledge has spread far and wide. NASA has very few mechanisms by which to spread knowledge in the world of ITAR, company proprietary, winner-take-all-competitions. On the contrary, the NASA knowledge model being contractor based once awarded, knowledge gets scurried away, locked up, and everyone else gets told to go home.

    Regardless of the outcome of COTS-crew, this broad goal of spreading the knowledge, meaning a certain redundancy in efforts, is absolutely required to mature the industry. Maturity means knowledge spreading among many parties. The ambition of human space flight and its safety requirement will force in-direct improvements across the board in technology, quality, and business processes that a cargo initiative would never drive. These improvements one-step removed from safety (cost, reliability, quality of hardware, people processes and business processes, flight rate, productivity, infrastructure) are dragged along by safety. It’s a fight that has to go on to have NASA fund competing and distinctively modeled proposals under any budget environment. COTS-crew may fail in the near term yet it should never be abandoned in its basic reason for existence. And should COTS-crew initiative succeed then the road beyond Low-Earth-Orbit will be that much more easily explored, built up with cargo, and funded.

    In a world of limited budgets power in a program means thinking that doing means a set of limited, near term goals. I’m taking the crew up, not you. Regardless of budgets, an Exploration program should never have been formulated absent the realization that knowledge has to spread, absent planning on the funding for COTS-crew out of foreseen budgets. Yet even when seeing far more generous budgets years ago this was not the case. The “winner take all” notion has dominated both Exploration at the high level, and Constellation below. This has to stop. Broader NASA human space flight goals have to be accepted and acted upon. So here we are. Debating endlessly in purposeful confusion something so simple as safety. It’s testament to the lack of advancement in getting to Low-Earth-Orbit that we are having such a debate. It’s testament to lack of past investment. The question becomes – shall we define safety and related goals and then see what we can afford, with reasonable certainty, lots of margin and with an awareness of the way budget promises change too easily. Or shall we hide behind “it’s complicated”, “at the proper funding level – then maybe”, and so on?

    If we are still having this debate as the years go by it says something – what are we doing going beyond Low-Earth-Orbit when even putting a safety metric, or a cost, non-recurring or recurring, or a schedule, to getting to Low-Earth-Orbit is like nailing Jello to the wall?

    Some things come first.

  • common sense

    @ That NASA Engineer @ KSC:

    You show a lot more than insight here: A lot of common sense I would say that does not need to be based on super computer simulations.

  • Doug Lassiter

    I have to say that the overwhelming emphasis on safety that blankets the human space flight enterprise in this country is puzzling in many respects. Now, it’s nice to do things safely. But how does that jive with the justification for doing human space flight? That is, to pick up on the good thought expressed earlier about safety for service members in Fallujah, we put those people at risk because we believe what they’re doing there is important. When they die, we nod our heads and say, OK, they died for something. I’m not trying to be judgmental about human spaceflight, but that says to me that, at some level, Congress is saying that what we’re doing with human space flight is really not that important. Or they recognize that their constituents don’t see any importance that could justify the loss of human life, such that when it happens there would be hell to pay.

    I mean, if this is all about harvesting riches from the solar system, at some level that’s worth lives. Coal miners and oil field workers know this. If it’s about saving the human species, then that’s certainly worth lives. But it’s just about shoveling dollars to the aerospace industry, it’s probably not. Is that where we are here? Doing something we feel we have to do that’s not important?

  • The emphasis on safety is one of the stronger indications that space is not important at all, as I noted in my essay last summer.

  • Dave Huntsman

    NASA has very few mechanisms by which to spread knowledge in the world of ITAR, company proprietary, winner-take-all-competitions. On the contrary, the NASA knowledge model being contractor based once awarded, knowledge gets scurried away, locked up, and everyone else gets told to go home.

    NASA does have some mechanisms, and there are whole organizations charged with doing so; but your general point is taken. That is why one of the basic NASA reforms that are needed is almost back-to-the-future; more of a NACA-style enterprise that has the explicit job of nurturing, serving, and even creating competitive space industries. The way NACA generally did it, the prime mode of work was not by contract to one winner in each area; it was more generating entire technical databases freely available to U.S. industry (among doing other things, some of them non-technical).

    For example, there have been discussions in recent weeks between U.S. space companies (including entrepreneurial) and engineers from the NASA Centers, USAF, and FAA, as to how the government can help the creation of an economically-sustainable commercial reusable launch vehicle industry. One of the common messages more than one company gave is that there is a real need to conducted integrated technology demonstration vehicles – simply put, X-vehicles – again, since that is very difficult for individual companies to do. But even in doing these vehicles, they can be done in the ‘wrong’ way: If NASA continues its old cost-plus, pick-a-winner contracting ways, there will undoubtedly continue to be impediments to the free dissemination of information to help the industry as a whole. If the government owns the X-vehicle, though, as a demo and test facility, it can (more) freely make the results available to advance industry.

    If American industry is to maintain – and in an increasing number of cases, regain – its competitive lead in space, NASA’s basic way of doing business is in need of basic reforms.

  • Doug Lassiter

    “The emphasis on safety is one of the stronger indications that space is not important at all, as I noted in my essay last summer.”

    There is risk-aversion by NASA, which is one thing, and risk aversion by Congress, which is another. The agency is risk averse because if they screw up it makes them look incompetent. Congress is risk averse because, as you say, it just isn’t that important. Congress could tell NASA to go ahead and boldly reach out, with due regard for crew safety. But that’s not what Congress is doing. Their metric for success is how few people we lose.

  • Their metric for success is how few people we lose.


    Isn’t it depressing? Because the best way to lose few people is to do nothing at all…

  • Robert G. Oler

    The engineer at KSC …nice comments

    As I (and others) have pointed out the entire notion of safety and Ares is really the last card that supporters of a government run program have to offer…nothing else “works” (ie cost/schedule/etc).

    aside from that, the notion of NASA human spaceflight being the “safety” gurus is almost laughable.

    What competence NASA had in human spaceflight it lost somewhere between STS 1 and Challenger.

    Oddly it is not the hardware which let them down…it was the management. And Management is summation of all safety in just about all organizations particularly in human spaceflight.

    Robert G. Oler

  • Robert G. Oler

    Rand Simberg a nice essay btw

    Robert G. Oler

  • Ferris Valyn

    The fact that Robert, Rand, and myself all agree on something, must mean that hell is freezing over :D

  • Well, it is snowing in Houston… :-)

  • The last time I was in an ice storm between Dallas and Austin it was pure hell! :P

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