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Starliner after landing
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner after landing on its uncrewed Orbital Flight Test in December, a mission cut short by technical problems. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Private options, private risks: the future of US spaceflight


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The United States is moving closer to commercial human spaceflight for its International Space Station (ISS) crews. This new flight option has drawn much enthusiasm especially when compared to the multiple failures of NASA to develop a replacement for the now departed space shuttle. Here, a brief discussion of the problem and the hazards of the new approach will be presented.

The situation

The pressure is on NASA to return to flight with regards to delivering crew members to the ISS and explorers to the lunar surface and beyond. In order to accomplish the first, the agency is empowering private companies to fly payloads and personnel to the ISS. Payload flights by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman are now underway with the usual flight delays and failures typical for new vehicles in their early years. Being payloads, not crew members, such outcomes are acceptable within limits. Each of the launch failures delayed progress but did not derail it.

There is widespread agreement within Congress and the executive branch that employing commercial flight options is optimal in terms of cost.

The logical extension of this mission is to incorporate commercial flight options to the ISS for crew transportation. This is occurring through the ongoing Commercial Crew Development program. Two vendors are developing flight options: SpaceX with its Crew Dragon vehicle and the Boeing Crew Space Transportation (CST-100) Starliner. Development has proceeded slower than anticipated due to developmental issues. At this point, SpaceX plans for its first demonstration crew flight in 2020, a delay but not fatal to the program. Successful operation of either or both spacecraft opens the door for the United States to terminate its dependence on Russia for access to the ISS. The preference is for two flight options, preserving the capacity to fly if one option lags or suffers an accident. Twice during the space shuttle program, accidents suspended flights until the hazards were identified and corrected.

For the second, NASA is developing the Space Launch System (SLS), a program also with a slipping schedule, now first flight some time in 2021. The Trump Administration’s 2024 goal for astronauts returning to the lunar surface adds immense pressure on the SLS program. Last year, Vice President Pence suggested using alternatives to SLS, employing private launch vehicles, if the SLS falters. Whether the 2024 schedule continues depends on the congressional response to the Artemis program’s budget demands. Second, the 2020 presidential election creates uncertainty. Regardless, the high cost of the SLS will keep a steady pressure to employ cheaper commercial flight options. Presently, the objection to those vehicles is their lack of enough lift to complete the missions. Forthcoming flight options will meet the immediate needs for capacity, but their development comes slowly given the politically imposed deadline of 2024 instead of the earlier goal of 2028.

The problem

There is widespread agreement within Congress and the executive branch that employing commercial flight options is optimal in terms of cost. NASA has a long history of schedule delays and cost overruns. The Government Accountability Office has routinely identified those issues. Private sector advocates argue that private commercial options are more efficient and less costly than public ones. Fixed-price contracts hold their feet to the proverbial fire while payment upon completion keeps the private companies focused on the task at hand.

Given the ideological climate within which public policy is developed and implemented in the United States, such a perspective would appear a persuasive one. That, however, has not been the case. Efforts to privatize the space shuttle, for example, necessarily floundered for several reasons. Those included cost of operation, unreliability in terms of schedule, and concerns about flight safety. In the latter case, objections arose over safety in terms of cost cutting, other shortcuts, and staff reduction leading to reduced or less thorough scrutiny of possible hazards. Even more critically, oversight by NASA might be compromised. The Apollo 1 pad fire and the Challenger and the Columbia flight accidents occurred even though safety was priority one. A combination of NASA and company mistakes led to the tragedies. The concern was that the probability for such events would rise as NASA safety personnel become more distant from actual operations prior to flight. NASA engagement does not guarantee greater safety for the crews but historically the agency is deeply committed to flight safety. The agency in both shuttle accidents ignored warnings, although in the latter case, Columbia, it is unclear what could have been done. No organization or organizations made up of humans will be omnipotent and all knowing but distancing the agency from the testing and development can lead to disaster.

Companies usually desire to keep control of their environment, meaning outsiders such as NASA are excluded as much as possible. The recent Starliner flight malfunctions now appear, unofficially at least, to reflect failures during testing. Those appear to be oversights rather than active failure but the results are the same. It is a program under pressure to do well because Boeing is under severe stress due to schedule delays with the CST-100 testing. The pressures come from the competition with SpaceX regarding NASA crewed flight and the other events shaking the company tied to the 737 MAX accidents. As a result, NASA is having to recapture its role of deeper safety scrutiny rather than deferring to the contractor.

The decision is how deeply engaged NASA is in the decision to go or not. The United States will return to human spaceflight, but with what degree of safety oversight.

One of the debates occurring during the end of the Apollo program and carrying into the space shuttle program was NASA’s future role: would its personnel be as actively engaged in the building of spacecraft and launch vehicles as the 1960s NASA team, especially after Apollo 1? The argument was that the degree of engagement was a function of the Germans who, originally in the 1930s, had to build everything themselves. Their technical engagement and experience were unparalleled initially. Over time, that gap lessened but NASA confronted budget contingencies that led to an attrition of expertise. NASA became more dependent on contractors than earlier. Howard McCurdy’s book Inside NASA gave some insight into that process as it was occurring within the organization. This situation meant that agency outsiders controlled important parts of the research and development process. NASA continues to have strong expertise in many technology areas but much has been outsourced in effect to contractors.

NASA is confronting a decision regarding crewed missions to the ISS, with SpaceX pushing for first crewed flight in May 2020. The decision is how deeply engaged NASA is in the decision to go or not. The United States will return to human spaceflight, but with what degree of safety oversight. Rather than discover that in another accident investigation, NASA needs to recapture control over R&D done under its auspices. The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has articulated over the years its concern that lessons are learned but not necessarily applied going forward:

In one particular instance, an issue with flight hardware subcomponents was discovered during some integrated vehicle testing. While this was yet another validation of the value of integrated testing, it was determined that these particular subcomponents were not built to spec but, in spite of that, had apparently passed the subcomponent qualification testing. The subcomponents themselves are very common pieces of hardware for spacecraft, and there is a long history both at NASA and in industry with qualification-testing this kind of hardware prior to acceptance and integration. In this case, the actual quality of the subcomponent hardware was compromised in manufacturing, but the commonly used qualification testing of the subcomponent, developed by experience over time, did not catch the problems with the hardware. Although integrated testing caught this particular issue, it is a good reminder that supply chain challenges are manifesting across the aerospace industry and that a robust, proactively aggressive qualification testing and surveillance program is one of our best defenses in the face of these challenges. (NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Annual Report 2019, pages 23-24)

NASA’s history has been one of great triumphs despite erratic support from Congress and the presidency. Its goals are often set for reasons personally political to the president of the day rather than systematic space exploration and development. That pattern is fixed given political realities and American culture. US space policy is moving toward a commercial future, but NASA will continue to be key as we move out from cislunar space. Doing that safely must be a prime driver for the agency despite pressures to move more quickly.


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