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Obama and Musk
President Barack Obama with SpaceX founder Elon Musk at Cape Canaveral last month. While other companies have expressed interest in commercial crew transportation, SpaceX has become most closely linked to the new proposal. (credit: B. Ingalls/NASA)

Twin hurdles for commercial human spaceflight

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Some time in the next few weeks—the current schedule states this Friday, the 28th, but that date has been slipping for some time—the first SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will lift off from Cape Canaveral. Its only official payload is a qualification model of the Dragon spacecraft also developed by SpaceX. The rocket, though, will also be carrying a far heavier payload: the perception of whether the commercial sector is capable of handling the task of ferrying astronauts to and from low Earth orbit, a key aspect of President Obama’s plans for NASA unveiled in his 2011 budget proposal in February. A successful launch could help demonstrate that commercial ventures are ready to take over something that until now had been in the realm of governments; a failure could add fuel to doubts that such a shift is unwise, if not unsafe.

Perception is powerful, and whatever happens with that inaugural Falcon 9 launch will weigh heavily on a debate that has been heating up in the nearly four months since the budget’s release.

Putting all that pressure on the upcoming Falcon 9 launch is arguably unfair to both SpaceX and the commercial space transportation industry in general. First launches of new rockets are prone to failure: unlike aircraft—or even suborbital RLVs—that can be tested incrementally, the first time all the elements of an orbital expendable launcher are put together and tested as a single vehicle is on its first launch. Moreover, while SpaceX has become something of the poster child for commercial crew transportation, it’s not the only company interested in this market. United Launch Alliance (ULA), whose Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets have perfect launch records since their introductions in 2002, has expressed an interest in commercial crew, and Orbital Sciences Corporation, who, like SpaceX, has a contract to ferry cargo to the International Space Station, may also pursue any opportunities there.

However, perception is powerful, and whatever happens with that inaugural Falcon 9 launch will weigh heavily on a debate that has been heating up in the nearly four months since the budget’s release, particularly as authorizers and appropriators on Capitol Hill prepare their legislation that will shape and fund NASA’s plans for the coming year. It’s a debate that has been joined during that time from people ranging from members of Congress to industry officials to, perhaps most notably, former astronauts. The debate about commercial crew in the president’s budget proposal is really about answering two different questions: can commercial providers safely transport crews to and from low Earth orbit, and can they do so on a truly commercial basis?

Can companies provide crew transportation safely?

As a number of people, including NASA administrator Charles Bolden, have pointed out, having companies build human-rated spacecraft and launch vehicles is nothing new. Since the early days of the Space Age NASA has turned to companies to manufacture the vehicles that would carry its astronauts into orbit. However, those arrangements, from McDonnell Aircraft Corporation’s work on Mercury to the various contractors working on Constellation’s Ares launcher and Orion spacecraft, are very different that what’s envisioned under the new plan. Those vehicles were built under contract for NASA, with extensive NASA oversight, and later operated either by NASA or by NASA contractors for the exclusive use of the space agency. Under the new plan, some, if not all, of those attributes will change.

Exactly how different this new paradigm will be from the old one remains to be seen, as NASA has yet to disclose many details about its proposed approach to commercial crew. Just last Friday NASA issued a request for information (RFI) for the agency’s commercial crew transportation initiative, asking for feedback from industry about those plans, including issues related to safety and contracting mechanisms.

However, the lack of information so far has created a vacuum that some have tried to fill with skepticism about or outright opposition to commercial crew, based on their experiences with other programs inside or outside NASA or other beliefs. The statements, from a variety of sources, suggest that NASA and industry have far to go to convince key stakeholders, including members of Congress, that the commercial sector can handle the task of transporting astronauts.

“Although I strongly support the goals and ideals of commercial access to space, the folks who propose such a limited architecture ‘do not yet know what they don’t know,’” Cernan wrote.

An example is a comment by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) to reporters at the Kennedy Space Center shortly after the launch of the shuttle Atlantis on May 14. “I think, if I had to guess, I would say that you boys are going to have to show us that you can walk before you run,” he said, the “boys” in question being prospective commercial crew providers. Referring to a hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee earlier that week, he said, “You heard the skepticism among the members the other day about the commercial boys being able to man-rate their system without NASA basically having to do it for them.”

At that hearing, titled “The Future of U.S. Human Space Flight”, NASA’s commercial crew plans were sharply criticized by Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first and (to date) last men to walk on the Moon. Cernan in particular took aim at those commercial crew plans, suggesting that companies interested in this market didn’t know what they were getting into. “Although I strongly support the goals and ideals of commercial access to space, the folks who propose such a limited architecture ‘do not yet know what they don’t know,’he wrote in his opening statement (emphasis in original). Technical and safety issues, he argued, “will lead to unplanned delays which will cost the American taxpayer billions of unallocated dollars and lengthen ‘the gap’ from Shuttle retirement to the day we can once again access LEO.”

How long would the gap lengthen? “Based upon my background and experience, I submit to this committee and to the Congress that it will take the private sector as long as 10 years to access LEO safely and cost-effectively,” Cernan said, citing sources as diverse as an Aerospace Corporation study and an unnamed “prominent Russian academician”.

At an earlier hearing of the space subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, former Lockheed Martin executive Tom Young also expressed doubts about the ability of industry to provide commercial crew services. “I believe we are a long way from having a commercial industry capable of satisfying human space transportation needs,” he said. “In my view, this is a risk too high and not a responsible course.”

His skepticism, he explained, was rooted in past failures, particularly by the Defense Department in the 1990s, to turn over more oversight responsibilities to industry. The result then was a spate of programs that suffered major overruns, some of which were cancelled. “I do not believe the probability of success is sufficiently high to justify commercial crew as a responsible option,” Young concluded. “It is an option that, if not successful, will result in the US having no space transportation for two decades or longer.”

Perhaps the biggest concern among skeptics of commercial crew is the ability of industry to carry out such missions safely. “It was asserted that by buying taxi service to low Earth orbit rather than owning the taxis, ‘we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met.’ The logic of that statement is mystifying,” Armstrong wrote in his opening statement. “The private company spacecraft, to my knowledge, have not been as rigorously analyzed for safety as have existing rockets, Ares, and shuttle derivatives,” adding that Ares 1 had the best safety rating “by a significant margin”.

“Safety will remain our prime concern in any system that carries humans into space,” said Garver.

A key safety challenge facing commercial crew is determining the standards such vehicles must meet. While NASA has its own existing standards for human-rating vehicles, those are not necessarily intended to also be utilized by commercial vehicles, an issue raised by NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) in its 2009 report. Current NASA human rating procedures, the report stated, “when applied to the development of future human-related vehicles, were not specifically intended to establish requirements for vehicles produced by entities external to NASA, such as COTS [Commercial Orbital Transportation Services] firms or international programs.”

ASAP recommended that NASA develop human-rating requirements (HRR) specific to commercial crew vehicles, something the agency is embarking upon but has not completed. “It is the Panel’s position that no COTS manufacturer is currently HRR qualified, despite some claims and beliefs to the contrary,” ASAP noted in its report. That statement appears aimed at SpaceX, which has claimed that it is following NASA’s existing human rating standards in the development of the Falcon 9 and Dragon.

“We have yet to agree upon the safety standards for human-rating” of commercial vehicles, Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) said in a speech last month at a Space Transportation Association breakfast. “It’s not accurate for these commercial, private operators to say that they’re meeting the standards because they don’t exist today.”

At a hearing last month of the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, subcommittee chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) expressed concern that there may be a bifurcation of safety requirements between government and commercial vehicles. “It would be my hope that there will be one safety standard” for all vehicles, she said.

NASA administrator Bolden, who served on ASAP prior to becoming administrator, said he’s worked to address those concerns. “Since my becoming the NASA administrator, we share the human rating standards with all of the prospective vendors,” he said in response to Mikulski’s concerns at the hearing. He added that the agency was developing new standards that will condense the “massive number of requirements” into a single source document.

Industry and NASA officials have countered that safety, while important, is not the showstopper critics of the agency’s commercial crew plans have suggested it is. “Safety will remain our prime concern in any system that carries humans into space,” NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington last month. “Our commercial providers will have had many launches under their belts before any potential commercial crew mission… We won’t let astronauts fly on vehicles that have not successfully gone through a rigorous human rating process, period.”

In a press conference the afternoon after Mikulski’s hearing, Mark Sirangelo, chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and an executive vice president of Sierra Nevada Corporation, dismissed concerns about safety as “without merit.” “At the end of the day, standards will be set up for safety and those standards would be applied to all organizations,” he said. “And if you don’t pass those safety standards, you’re not going be flying passengers.”

“We’re flying systems that are incredibly reliable today,” said Andrew Aldrin, director of business development for ULA, at a forum on NASA’s commercial initiatives organized by the Marshall Institute in Washington in late March, discussing why he didn’t worry about safety. “Secondly, and maybe more importantly, NASA and the American people aren’t going to tolerate a system that isn’t as safe as it possibly can be.”

Can companies provide crew transportation commercially?

Tied to the question of commercial capabilities and safety for transporting astronauts is a different issue: can companies provide such transportation commercially? That is, if companies can develop systems for ferrying astronauts to and from LEO that meet NASA’s safety and other requirements, can companies also find other customers for such services? If not, and NASA is the only customer, the agency’s plan for commercial procurement could regress to a more typical contractor arrangement.

Some have argued that NASA’s plans may not meet the definition of “commercial”. Eric Sterner, a senior fellow at the Marshall Institute, noted at the institute’s late March event a definition for commercial space activities in NSPD-3, a set of guidelines for commercial space activities issued by the George H. W. Bush Administration in 1991:

Commercial space sector activities are characterized by the provision of products and services such that:

  • private capital is at risk;
  • there are existing, or potential, nongovernmental customers for the activity;
  • the commercial market ultimately determines the viability of the activity; and
  • primary responsibility and management initiative for the activity resides with the private sector.

“Are we there with commercial human spaceflight?” he asked, later saying that he was skeptical the commercial sector could achieve them. “I don’t think we’ve met those criteria yet, and I’m not at all confident that we will meet them ever.”

Of those, most attention has been on the second: the existence, or lack thereof, of additional users of a commercial human space transportation system. Finding other markets will be key to the success of commercial crew systems in any case, given the relatively small size of NASA’s crew transport requirements: as few as two missions a year, depending on the size of such vehicles and ISS requirements. That makes it essential to understanding the size of the market for commercial human spaceflight.

“The most credible near-term market for Earth-to-LEO and back crew transportation services would be Bob Bigelow,” said Shaw.

Some have been critical of NASA for not closely studying this market before making the decision to include commercial crew in its plans for the agency. “The administration claims that if we build up this so-called commercial rocket industry the private sector market will magically materialize to produce more expendable launches, at a lower cost, earlier than the schedule of Constellation,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), one of the more strident critics of the administration’s plans, at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing last month. “What NASA and this administration have failed to disclose to the US taxpayer is that NASA has no verifiable data to support this claim.”

“The primary source the administration can cite is a 2002 Futron study that has proven to be overly optimistic,” Shelby continued, noting that the study, the Space Tourism Market Study, projected 33 space tourists would fly from 2002 through 2010, whereas only eight have flown so far. Other critics have also picked up on that apparent mismatch between forecast and reality as evidence that the commercial market for orbital human spaceflight is underwhelming.

This author, being intimately familiar with the forecast, can shed some light on that forecast. A common misconception about the study is that it forecasts the number of people who will actually fly. Instead, it forecasts the demand for space tourism based on the level of interest among the population of people with the means to pay for such flights. Realizing that demand is a separate issue (as can be seen in the delays in opening the even-larger market for suborbital space tourism.) The supply of vehicles that could serve the orbital space tourism market was dramatically affected by the Columbia accident and the concomitant policy changes. At the time the study was released the ISS was scheduled for completion by mid-decade, with an increase in the number of Soyuz flights, all of which could accommodate at least one commercial passenger. Delays in assembling the station and the planned retirement of the shuttle have all affected the number of seats available, and have kept prices high.

Tourism, though, isn’t the only potential market for commercial human spaceflight. Over the last several years Bigelow Aerospace has been developing plans for commercial orbital habitats, primarily to serve not tourists but commercial research customers as well as “sovereign clients”, countries without indigenous human spaceflight capabilities (see “Big plans, low prices”, The Space Review, April 16, 2007). Those plans have been held back because of a lack of crew transportation systems, but if those systems emerge the company is ready to move ahead and potentially generate significant demand. According to the latest commercial space transportation forecast by the FAA, released last week, Bigelow’s plans “could create significant additional demand for commercial launches: in excess of 150 launches through 2020 according to company projections.”

Bigelow has also partnered with Boeing, one of the companies that received funding from NASA earlier this year as part of its $50-million Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. “The most credible near-term market for Earth-to-LEO and back crew transportation services would be Bob Bigelow,” said Brewster Shaw, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s space exploration division, during a briefing at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs last month.

Jayne Schnaars, vice president of business development for space exploration at Boeing, reiterated the company’s support for commercial crew development during a panel at a Women in Aerospace (WIA) conference in Washington last week. “We want to become the Boeing Commercial Airplanes of commercial space exploration,” she said.

However, she expressed one concern: the planned development of Orion as a crew return vehicle for the ISS as undermining the business case for a commercial crew vehicle. “We would have a cost-plus government-funded capsule competing against our commercial fixed-price capsule,” she warned, even though Orion, as currently planned, would not be used to transport astronauts to LEO.

Bolden said he didn’t recall using the term “bailout”, but did note, “I will do everything in my power to facilitate the success of the commercial entities in access to low Earth orbit.”

Still, many are skeptical that markets are robust enough for commercial providers to develop these capabilities without significant additional NASA funding. Some have taken on comparisons made by some to high-growth markets like the Internet. “What is being proposed in the NASA budget is fundamentally a very ‘romantic’ policy,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, during a panel about the NASA budget at the National Space Symposium. “It uses analogies to IT and aviation and so forth which are very compelling,” he said, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s a basis for management.”

This has led to claims that NASA would be willing to “bail out” commercial companies if those markets failed to materialize and they got into financial trouble. At the Senate Commerce Committee hearing earlier this month Cernan claimed that Bolden told him exactly that. “Charlie expressed some concern over the potential of the commercial sector to be successful in any reasonable length of time. He indicated we might have to subsidize them until they are successful,” he recounted, referring to a recent briefing about NASA’s pans Bolden gave to Cernan and Armstrong. “And, I can say with authority because I wrote this down and put the words ‘wow’ right next to it, because Charlie did say it may be a bailout like GM and Chrysler. As a matter of fact, it may be the largest bailout in history.”

Earlier in the hearing, Bolden claimed he couldn’t recall using such language. “I’m not sure I said that,” Bolden responded when asked about it by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA). However, he went on, “I will do everything in my power to facilitate the success of the commercial entities in access to low Earth orbit. I have to have that.”

Polarized debate

Exchanges like that have not been uncommon in the debate about commercial crew. Even before the alleged “bailout” statement by Bolden, critics of the plan have used such language, along with “subsidies” and even “rocket hobbyists”. Proponents of the plan have hailed it while directing their invective at Constellation, praising the “death sentence” the new plan levied on it.

“It just seems to me like, particularly in regard to crew, there is no middle ground,” said Trafton. “It is, ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us.’”

There is a growing perception that the debate is one between Constellation and commercial, an either/or situation where there will be one winner or one loser. Speaking to a local television station just before the Atlantis launch, Sen. Nelson suggested that the funding in the White House’s budget proposal for commercial crew might be better spent on continued Ares tests. “I think the question is out there whether or not we’re going to man-rate commercial rockets and instead use that $6 billion trying to do a shuttle-derived man-rated system such as Ares,” he told Central Florida News 13.

At last week’s meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), an industry group that advises the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, there was a similar perception of polarization. “It just seems to me like, particularly in regard to crew, there is no middle ground,” said COMSTAC chairman Will Trafton at the beginning of Wednesday’s public meeting. “It is, ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us.’”

At the COMSTAC meeting, members debated two statements: one endorsing the commercial crew proposal in the NASA budget and another stating that the FAA should retain its existing role licensing such commercial launches, while allowing NASA to impose additional safety-related requirements on such missions, just as any other customer can. COMSTAC approved both statements by nearly unanimous votes.

Aldrin, speaking at the Marshall Institute event, dismissed the hyperbole from both sides of the debate. “If you listen to the chatter in Washington, you’d think that commercial space was either the second coming of the Internet or the end of Western Civilization as we know it,” he said. “The truth lies somewhere in between.”

The challenge for NASA, industry, Congress, and others in the debate is to look past the chatter and seek the truth. One step on that path will take place Tuesday, when NASA hosts its Exploration Enterprise Workshop in Galveston, Texas, where agency officials will discuss, among other topics, its commercial crew plans. On Wednesday there will be a hearing by the House Science and Technology Committee that will feature repeat performances by Armstrong, Bolden, Cernan, and Young; whether this yields insights or simply more chatter remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, in Florida, SpaceX continues plans for its first Falcon 9 launch. “We wish SpaceX the very best in its launch,” said Patti Grace Smith, a former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, at the WIA conference last week, “but we are realistic about the probabilities [of success], as are they.” Nonetheless, a successful launch would be much better for the prospects for commercial crew than an unsuccessful one.