What a week! First, the Obama Administration says US transportation of personnel to the International Space Station will be done by commercial providers. Then, today, the Constellation program is cancelled. Is the Adminstration anti-space? What in the world is going on?
There is an old Chinese saying, "A time of tragedy is a time of great opportunity." That is true in this case.
The old science fiction writers from the 1950s and 1960s wrote stories about travelers to Mars, the Moon or orbiting spacestations. Almost invariably transportation was provided by commercial means. It is interesting to note that predictions by science fiction writers often fall short of actual events. Writers base their stories on life as they see it occuring around them. Finding the government to be the party of innovation and daring is not something you find in real life. From this observation, what do you find more strange: the idea that commercial providers will take some risks to do something innovative, or the idea that government in any form will create unbridled expansion by taking great risks?
The question we should really be asking is this, "If commercial manned spaceflight is to be our chariot from and beyond Earth's gravity well, how can success be promoted?" Efficiency, not just general capability, is needed. Efficiency in this case can be defined as maximization of capability over time at minimum cost. Yep, it's the old value equation.
Don't get me wrong. The value statement recognizes societal costs and benfits on par with commercial requirements to make a buck. Value to all stakeholders, not exclusively shareholders, is exactly the same challenge today being thrown at business across the planet. It happens to be true for space ventures as well. And in the same way global markets have created best practices to enable efficiency in trade, best practices will allow commercial manned spaceflight to become safer, in time, than NASA ever imagined.
NASA has criticized commercial manned spaceflight efforts for failures to comply with benchmarks for safety. "Can't be done," summarizes the NASA position. A review of the published NASA requirements for manned spaceflight certification gives the reader an understanding of how this statement can truthfully be made. Technical requirements are only one part of the certification process. A substantial part of the existing process requires compliance with organizational process, reviews and process certification.
Somehow, NASA expects the likes of Musk, Bigelow or Branson to give very senior NASA officials, attending government structured design and flight reviews, veto power for each tail number that will fly manned. The purpose, per current process, will not necessarily be to assess technical compliance.
Either within NASA or within commercial manned spaceflight enterprises, it is time to move toward transparent, measureable consensus standards for manned spaceflight. It is an opportunity we should not waste.
Unless otherwise noted, the blog posts are written by Frederick A. Slane, Executive Director of the Space Infrastructure Foundation.