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Panel Warns NASA On Commercial Astronaut Transport 319

Posted by kdawson
from the let-me-carry-that-for-you dept.
DesScorp writes "In a blow against the commercial space industry, a federal panel warned NASA not to use private companies to ferry astronauts into space. While the Obama Administration wants to outsource some NASA activities, insiders at the space agency are resisting any moves to use commercial alternatives. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel 'cautioned that the private space companies rely on "unsubstantiated claims" and need to overcome major technical hurdles before they can safely carry astronauts into orbit. The report urged NASA to stick with its current government-run manned space ventures, and said that switching to private alternatives now would be "unwise and probably not cost-effective." The findings are likely to provide a boost to NASA officials who want to keep nearly all manned space programs in house.' Private companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing argue that they're capable of human transport in space safely and at competitive costs."
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Panel Warns NASA On Commercial Astronaut Transport

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  • by 2.7182 (819680) on Friday January 22, 2010 @09:05AM (#30858826)
    Just trying readying Feynman's experience with them.
  • by mdm-adph (1030332) <mdmadphNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Friday January 22, 2010 @09:32AM (#30859122) Homepage

    Shut up.

    Deregulating space travel is the only way we're ever going to make a dent there, for the time being and with the current political climate.

    Please, just shut up. Yes, a few are going to die going up, but they know the risks.

  • by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Friday January 22, 2010 @09:33AM (#30859134)

    AND they still have a safety record that dwarfs NASA's.

    No, they don't.

    Shuttle has had 134 flights, two failures. About 1.6%.

    Soyuz has had 104 flights, two failures. About 2%.

    Note that in both cases, the "failures" were loss of crew accidents. If we also include failures that do not cause loss of crew, Soyuz looks even worse.

  • by Svartalf (2997) on Friday January 22, 2010 @09:36AM (#30859172) Homepage

    Considering how crazy-careful nasa can be with things, and how any private company is going to cut every possible corner, yes it'll save a bundle, and kill a bunch of astronauts in the process.

    For all of their "caution", the following two incidents happened and come immediately to mind:

    The Challenger Disaster [wikipedia.org]
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle_Columbia_disaster [wikipedia.org]>The Columbia Disaster

    In the first, they launched in adverse conditions that aggravated a design flaw in the solid fuel booster's design that caused the Challenger to blow up as it ascended into orbit. The design flaw was approved by that "crazy-careful" NASA and the launch was approved by the same, over concerns about the design and the conditions by the subcontractor for the engines. If you saw the high-level design drawings for the sealing system they chose to use in the Space Shuttle booster (the most powerful solid fuel booster developed to date at that time...) when compared against the design they chose to use with the Titan II boosters they added to the Gemini program rockets, you'd see that they cheapened the design in the Shuttle booster- with a vastly more powerful booster. Couple that with conditions that would almost guarantee the failure we saw- and an insistence to launch when NASA knew there was a solid chance of this sort of failure- there's nothing "crazy-careful" in that mix.

    In the second, they switched an insulation design for the central fuel tank from one that relied on CFCs (good thing...) without verifying that there might be a problem with it coming off on launch and damaging the fragile ceramic heat shield tiles on the shuttle (bad thing...). The testing applied to the new insulation foam wasn't given as extensive a run of verification as the old stuff was, which led to the eventual issue. No checks of potential damage on the critical heat shield were done- not that they could have repaired the damage or easily got the crew back in one piece if they'd found out that they were in trouble there. No major accounting for damaged heat shield sections or planning for a detected problem (in the form of another shuttle on a rescue mission...) had ever really been done. Again, there's nothing "crazy-careful" in that mix.

    In the end, the only reason we've had the track record we have had with NASA in the Shuttle era of the agency has been that there've been few runs at things. Yes, in the past, NASA was crazy-careful, but that was more around the Apollo era of things. They're not so careful these days- else the two incidents wouldn't have transpired the way they did. In the first, they'd have scrubbed the mission for another day, which would have prevented the disaster altogether. In the second, had it happened with the people's attitudes during the Apollo 13 timeframe, they would've done a once-over of the shuttle visually either with monitoring gear or via EVA to ensure the integrity of the shuttle. They would have had contingencies for damage of the nature that happened- and had a backup plan for the crew if they couldn't repair the same. NASA's gotten to where they're probably only slightly better than the commercial interests in safety because they're well under budget (which is why they're trying desperately to keep it all in-house if possible; they can justify what they've got right now- if they outsource, the budget shrinks on them even further...) and they're operating more as a political org instead of an engineering driven one like it used to be. That's not to say they don't have good people and some of the best and brightest- but to characterize them as being vastly better on safety than the commercial interests because they're not going to cut corners, etc. is wrong and mistaken at best.

  • Re:Bad bad idea (Score:2, Informative)

    by hargrand (1301911) on Friday January 22, 2010 @09:46AM (#30859282)

    That's not the way it works. NASA specifies operational requirements. Engineers (many of whom may be NASA support contractors, not government employees) then translate those into technical requirements that are used as the basis for a competitive procurement. The winning bidder is responsible for the hard engineering, manufacturing, integration and initial testing. NASA from that point on acts, as has been mentioned here, as a program manager making sure that things like cost, schedule and performance risks are minimized.

  • by Ellis D. Tripp (755736) on Friday January 22, 2010 @09:47AM (#30859296) Homepage

    the second one with crappy environmentally friendly tile modifications was most definitely caused by NASA management listening to environmentalist dipshits instead of the experts.

    What exactly are these "tile modifications" you refer to? The fragile thermal tiles played no part in the Columbia accident, which involved a chunk of foam insulation from the external tank impacting the reinforced carbon-carbon leading edge of the orbiter's wing.

    And before you try to backpedal, and trot out the old right-wing canard (originated by Rush Limbaugh) about the ET insulation foam having been reformulated without CFCs, try reading the CAIB report (volume 1, Page 51), which specifically states that the portion of the foam that broke loose was the OLD CFC-based formulation.

    http://www.nasa.gov/columbia/caib/PDFS/VOL1/PART01.PDF [nasa.gov]
    http://mediamatters.org/research/200508090007 [mediamatters.org]
    http://www.sts107.info/kooks%20and%20myths/kooks.htm#EPA [sts107.info]

  • by Sir_Lewk (967686) <sirlewk@gmai l . com> on Friday January 22, 2010 @09:59AM (#30859422)

    Absolutely. You first.

    Are you kidding me? I would pay to be first, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:21AM (#30859706)

    While I'd like to see NASA abandon Ares for private vehicles, the report isn't quite the blow to private space efforts the article suggests. The report doesn't say that NASA shouldn't use private space vehicles to transport astronauts; it says that private space vehicles aren't at the point where their safety for transport of astronauts can even be determined. And until such a determination can be made, the report concludes, it would be unwise to abandon NASA's Ares vehicle. Here's the key paragraph:

    "To abandon Ares I as a baseline vehicle for an alternative without demonstrated capability nor proven superiority (or even equivalence) is unwise and probably not cost-effective. The ability of any current COTS design to “close the gap” or even provide an equivalent degree of safety is speculative. Switching from a demonstrated (design approach proven by Apollo, use of heritage hardware, and Ares 1-X flight success), well designed, safety optimized (ESAS) system to one based on nothing more than unsubstantiated claims would seem a poor choice. Before any change is made to another architecture, the inherent safety of that approach must be assessed to ensure that it offers a level of safety equal to or greater than the program of record."

  • by McGregorMortis (536146) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:30AM (#30859810)

    The "safety factor of three" was something that NASA management claimed. The O-rings would supposedly fail catastrophically if they eroded half-way through (one radius). In previous launches, the O rings had eroded only 1/3 of a radius. NASA management claimed this represented a "safety factor of three".

    Feynman was very critical of that assertion. The design did not expect the O rings to erode at all. The presence of erosion meant that they had already failed, and there was no safety factor at all. It just dumb luck that there had been no disasters before Challenger.

  • by GooberToo (74388) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:59AM (#30860170)

    Two major accidents in 30 years with an agency engaged in high risk activities. And you don't consider that a great safety record?

    Just to drive the point home, while I don't recall the actual statistics, but statistically speaking, even accounting for the accidents, NASA is ahead of what their own projections indicate. In other words, even with those accidents, NASA is still beating their own projected losses.

    Despite the fact everyone yawns when men are launched into orbit, rocket science is still science and at the best of times is a highly calculated crap shoot. All astronauts known this.

  • Elon Musk's Rebuttal (Score:2, Informative)

    by Larson2042 (1640785) on Friday January 22, 2010 @11:05AM (#30860264)
    I think it's also worth pointing out Elon Musk's rebuttal [spaceflightnow.com] to the findings of this NASA safety panel. I'm glad to see someone in the private spaceflight industry has the cajones to call BS when he sees it.
  • " and trot out the old right-wing canard (originated by Rush Limbaugh)"

    Limbaugh didn't originate that. That theory was put forth by a retired Lockheed engineer (before the accident investigation), and Limbaugh said it sounded likely to him. A lot of blogs picked it up too until the accident report came out.

  • by DynaSoar (714234) on Friday January 22, 2010 @11:31AM (#30860592) Journal

    Full article: http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=30060 [spaceref.com]

    Among points I picked up on myself, they point out that since there are no existing standards for them to follow for building human rated craft, they claim that none of them have experience doing so is non sequitor. They politely don't point out that the sole existing man rated spacecraft has had two fatal failures, though they'd also have to admit it's experimental, not commercial, even though built by human rated aircraft corporations.

    Even more politely, when ASAP makes the statement that the commercial start ups hoping to carry people are making unsubstantiated claims, they do reply that since they haven't built the hardware yet to test it, and only have stated intentions, it's hardly a valid criticism but don't resort to the sorely needed "DUH!".

    ASAP has done a creditable job when it came to criticizing their own work. That is, the BigAero members cooperated fully when investigating problems. But as far as dealing a blow to commercial startups, TFA is so full of FUD that NASA can only take it and leave it or risk being seen being led around by the corporate welfare milk teat.

    FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, and more recently Commerce's Office of Space Commercialization, have been plowing full speed ahead to clear the way for the new guys just as much as the big ones. When multibillion dollar corporations get scared enough to "warn" NASA, things are probably going to get interesting. I thought they were interesting enough the year Rutan won the X-prize, because half the licenses for commercial launches issued that year by FAA/AST had his name on them.

  • by Dishevel (1105119) * on Friday January 22, 2010 @11:49AM (#30860772)
    The capabilities that were lost? Oh I know. Will, Balls, and the ability for people to stand up to pussies and call them out. When you push the envelope people will die. Move on and move forward so that the lives lost will not be a waste. If Apollo 1 had happened today we would have never made it to the moon.
  • by Qzukk (229616) on Friday January 22, 2010 @11:52AM (#30860822) Journal

    In the second, they switched an insulation design

    The insulation that fell off and hit the wing was still the old insulation [sts107.info].

  • Re:Bad bad idea (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 22, 2010 @11:59AM (#30860912)

    Spend some time at one of the space centers. Look at the names on the buildings in the area. Look at the company names on the majority of the badges. Sneak into a couple design meetings to see the ideas being presented.... and who is presenting them. Then you might rethink your position.

    Hint: You'll find the civil servants are in the minority and the contractors are doing a lot of (most of?) the work. NASA takes a largely managerial role. Nothing special about them other than the color of their badge. Many get pulled into the ranks from the contractor pool.

    I was a co-op student in the Engineering Directorate of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in the early 2000's. Among many other things I did attend meetings and this was not my experience. While you are right about contractors being important to many projects and usually the only way an outsider could distinguish a civil servant from a contractor is by their badge, there was a lot of in-house design work. For example, two of the projects I worked on were the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) and the Material Science Research Rack (MSRR) most of the design work was done by civil servants. Not just the electronics but also the mechanical housings, although I do recall that the majority of the cable diagrams and routing were done by on-site contractors. There were also many other small to medium sized projects that were done "in-house" and the engineering work was primarily, and occasionally completely, done by civil servants. This included both technical demonstrations like DART and scientific missions like Gravity Probe B.

    On-site manufacturing was even less clear-cut, technically all the manufacturing personnel worked for whatever company won the contract. However, if a new company was awarded the contract the actual people doing the work were usually the same as before. I saw such a transition first hand, and while there were noticeable differences between how the shop was run under the two contractors, the names and faces hardly changed at all.

    I'll give you one more wrinkle before I end my post. There was one on-site contractor I often worked with who was, as he referred to it, "a charter member of NASA". He had been a engineering co-op student with the newly formed NASA, worked at Marshall until retirement in his 60's, then came back as a part-time (i.e. less than 35 hours per week) contractor.

  • by FleaPlus (6935) on Friday January 22, 2010 @12:10PM (#30861066) Journal

    Just trying readying Feynman's experience with them.

    It's really funny that you mention Feynman, because the problem he opens with in his dissenting opinion as a member of the panel which studied the Challenger accident is the exact same problem NASA management (especially Alabama's MSFC) has been having in their push of the Ares I as the "safest launch vehicle ever":

    http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/missions/51-l/docs/rogers-commission/Appendix-F.txt [nasa.gov]

    It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the
    probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The
    estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher
    figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from
    management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of
    agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a
    Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could
    properly ask "What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the
    machinery?" ...

    If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering
    often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of
    originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a
    very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with
    apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights
    may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively
    unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent
    (it is difficult to be more accurate).

          Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the
    probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this
    may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and
    success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that
    they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost
    incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working
    engineers.

    (It's also interesting to note that Feynman essentially had to fight the rest of the panel to include his dissent, as they wanted to just trust NASA to fix its problems on its own. Also worth noting that the management-to-engineer ratio at NASA is far higher than it was in Feynman's day)

    Even though the Ares I exists only on paper and it hasn't even passed a reasonable design review, NASA management (or at least the pre-Bolden management) claimed it would have a failure rate of 1-in-3000. Also, this failure rate ignores a number of potential problems which have come up with the design, but the ASAP panel mentioned in the summary just takes it on good faith that NASA will still make a perfectly safe vehicle with the Ares I. Fortunately, a number of the top Ares managers have already been canned, and the new administrator, Charles Bolden, seems to be much less problematic than his predecessor, Michael Griffin (i.e. he doesn't believe himself to be the world's greatest aerospace engineer, and so actually listens to what his engineers tell him).

    It's also worth noting that NASA (and the DOD, and NRO) already uses commercial launchers for all of their unmanned probes, as they've been doing for several years now. We all like to say human life is priceless, etc. etc., but there frankly isn't much more you'd do to safeguard a volunteering person than you'd do for a billion-dollar unmanned probe representing years of work by huge teams.

  • by Ambitwistor (1041236) on Friday January 22, 2010 @01:11PM (#30861728)

    NASA ignored all warnings from Morton Thiokol to postpone the launch.

    No, they didn't. Morton-Thiokol initially recommended that NASA postpone the launch. After much debate, they decide to go offline and reanalyse the risks. (It's not clear whether NASA explicitly asked them to reconsider their recommendation, or whether it was Morton-Thiokol's own idea) Morton-Thiokol came back and told NASA they'd determined it would be okay to launch after all. NASA then acted upon Morton-Thiokol's recommendation.

    Morton-Thiokol management ignored warnings from Morton-Thiokol engineers to postpone the launch. (Strictly speaking they didn't ignore the warnings, they overruled them, because they didn't think the engineers presented a sufficiently strong case for a catastrophic risk. Of course this was a foolish thing to do.)

    NASA's reasons for pressing on, in spite of these warnings, was entirely commercial.

    NASA's reasons for pressing on were that M-T told them it would be safe to do so. We don't know what NASA's reasons were for asking M-T to reanalyze the risks, if in fact they even did so. It's true that NASA wasn't eager to postpone the launch until April, and wanted a strong justification for doing so which M-T ultimately failed to provide. (Arguably that's backwards, they should have demanded a strong justification to proceed with the launch if doubts were present, but this decision failure is not the same as having "entirely commercial" motives.)

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