How active NASA should be in ensuring, or even regulating, the safety of commercial crew vehicles is an issue that has been debated for some time, but a couple of events in the last week demonstrate that the issue is still on the minds of people on Capitol Hill.
At last Friday’s hearing about the administration’s FY13 budget proposal for R&D programs, the first question posed to Office of Science and Technology Policy director John Holdren was not about proposed spending for NASA or other agencies, but about whether NASA had sufficient authority to oversee crew safety given its use of Space Act Agreements (SAAs). “I have a problem with this,” said committee chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX). “It’s my understanding that NASA can’t require the companies to meet any safety standards. I don’t know how that could have been left out.” Hall then asked Holden how NASA would ensure that these vehicles “ultimate are going to be safe enough to take NASA astronauts to the International Space Station?”
Holdren said he was not familiar with the details of the the limits of Space Act Agreements on enforcing compliance to safety standards. “I can’t imagine that NASA does not retain that responsibility” for ensuring crew safety, he said. “And if there is a problem in the agreements that would jeopardize that, I am sure we will fix it.”
Under a Space Act Agreement, NASA can’t force companies to meet specific safety requirements. NASA originally planned that the third phase in the Commercial Crew Program would be done under a contract in part to mandate compliance. However, NASA backtracked in December, saying the next phase, like the first two, would use SAAs in order to make better use of limited funding.
At a Commercial Crew program forum at the Kennedy Space Center earlier this month, NASA officials said they were confident that safety would be ensured without mandating compliance, since it will be in the companies’ best interests to meet NASA’s published safety standards in order to qualify for future contracts for crew transportation that will require meeting those standards. “So, our safety requirements are on the street and we would expect that any partner that might want to go after that service capability, and any commercial partner that might want to use NASA and its ISS as a potential customer, will need to look seriously at those requirements and understand what they are and understand the safety parameters we have within those requirements,” deputy program manager Brent Jett said at the February 7 briefing.
A separate issue is the role of NASA versus the FAA in regulating commercial crew launches. Such a mission would likely be considered a commercial launch and thus require a license from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), but one senator warned the FAA last week not to get more involved. “The FAA is going to be doing some of the regulations on this, but don’t think they’re going to be to the exclusion of NASA,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said in a speech at the FAA’s 15th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference on Thursday. “When you start man-rating a rocket, NASA’s going to be all over them with all four feet,” a figure of speech that engendered a few chuckles from the audience.
“Now I will admit that I have been a skeptic about getting the FAA involved,” Nelson said later in his speech. “But if the FAA’s expertise can really help do the routine things, and stay out of the knickers of NASA, and let NASA provide the technical know-how to keep the missions and the payloads and the astronauts safe aboard these new launch vehicles, and let the FAA prepare the safety guidelines for the industry, then we ought to be alright. But if you get the FAA starting to want to do what NASA does, then we’ve got a problem.”