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NASA Campaigns For Safer Launch Requirements 193

NASA officials will speak before members of Congress this week in an effort to gain support for more stringent launch safety considerations for the space shuttle's successor. Crew safety remains a major concern for lawmakers while they debate NASA's future and the potential integration of private companies into US space flight plans. "The demonstrated probability of a shuttle launch disaster is 1 in 129. NASA's 83 astronauts think those odds can be improved to 1 in 1,000. Independent safety experts agree. 'None of us want to repeat the accident history of the shuttle,' said retired Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Dyer, chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, a group organized to oversee NASA programs after three astronauts died in the 1967 Apollo 1 launch pad fire. ... NASA's Astronaut Office began a re-evaluation of next-generation launch vehicle safety after the loss of Columbia's crew. The guiding principles laid out in a May 2004 report remain current, astronauts said. Launching astronauts into low Earth orbit is dangerous. But an order-of-magnitude reduction of risk is achievable 'and should therefore represent a minimum safety benchmark for future systems,' the report says."
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NASA Campaigns For Safer Launch Requirements

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  • Wow... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nametaken ( 610866 ) * on Sunday November 29, 2009 @01:05PM (#30262210)

    I can certainly appreciate that they want to do better, but it still amazes me that we send people into F'ING SPACE with less than 1% failure rate.

  • by jlgreer1 ( 888680 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @01:13PM (#30262250)
    Why does NASA have to campaign for greater safety standards? Why can't they implement them without the "politicians" approval?
  • Re:Unpopular (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Marcika ( 1003625 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @01:25PM (#30262354)

    I realize this view is mighty unpopular, yet I am going to express it. While science is very important, so are social issues. I would like to see the NASA budget considerably shrunk but for only a short period of time, say 12 - 18 months. We have to get our country healthy again and space flight really only effects a small sector of the economy. It will create jobs but only at the most educated levels. A healthy country is a more efficient and productive one. Now, you may feel free to mod me but are you willing to join the censors?

    I don't have an opinion one way or another, but I am quite sure that it is infeasible to cut NASA's budget in half for 18 months and then expect them to continue as if nothing happened...

    What does a "shrunk budget" mean? Firing reseachers, firing engineers, cancelling projects with industry... And if you as an engineer got fired, you would presumably look for another job with more security and better pay in the private sector and not come back after 18 months into a shitty job where they will eliminate your position at a whim... In short, they can't just mothball manpower, because it won't come back.

  • reality (Score:2, Insightful)

    by heptapod ( 243146 ) <> on Sunday November 29, 2009 @01:26PM (#30262364) Journal

    I sincerely hope that people understand such legislation has its foundations in the fact that launch vehicles are very expensive and nothing to do with the pilots and passengers.
    Even taking into account the investment made in people while training astronauts can be sizeable it still pales in comparison to the expense of using a chemical rocket to boost a tiny payload into low earth orbit. $10,000 per pound in 2001 dollars.
    Once the price of lobbing things into space becomes reasonable, there will be deaths, once again nobody will care in the same measure nobody other than relatives of the victims bats an eye when a plane crashes today.
    What does NASA expect of all of the space programs? To have an unrealistic safety record which would put General Products to shame? Sometimes the tree of science needs to be watered with the blood of the brave and the bold.

  • by wizardforce ( 1005805 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @01:31PM (#30262412) Journal

    more money

  • NASA can not afford accidents, not because of the sanctity of human life or any nonsense like that, but because it will kill NASA and probably manned spaceflight in this country in general. Colombia very nearly killed the shuttle program entirely, before a successor was even on the drawing board. People are willing to accept that being an astronaut is dangerous, but a lot of people look up to them, and when a bunch of them explode in a ball of fire over Texas in an entirely preventable accident, the PR impact is catastrophic. Even privately funded spaceflight will get shut down (in this country at least) if it has too many high profile accidents. Even if in reality the cost in lives is minuscule compared to what we lose daily in car accidents or lung cancer from smoking, a few big accidents in a row and the politicians will see "stopping the reckles endangerment of human lives" as a way to score some cheap votes. If human beings were rational and logical, you'd have a point, but we aren't, and too many astronaut funerals on TV will inevitably cause a kneejerk reaction.

  • Re:Wow... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Baron_Yam ( 643147 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @01:43PM (#30262536)

    It amazes me that this is a serious concern. There IS a price for manned spaceflight and if it goes too high, it's over. Astronauts know the risks and willingly take them.

    If 1:1000 is achievable with the same budget as 1:129 then it'd be evil not to do it - but if it increases costs by even 2:1 it is stupid to even suggest it.

    America's losing its balls.

  • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @01:56PM (#30262622)

    What's even more confusing is that the summary seems to be implying that there's some big debate going on. NASA wants more assurance of crew safety. Lawmakers want more assurance of crew safety. Where's the problem here?

    The problem is that NASA is mentioning this so they can get a bigger budget.

    Congress, on the other hand, is mentioning this so they can justify lowering the budget.

  • Re:Wow... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Gazoogleheimer ( 1466831 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @02:03PM (#30262676) Homepage
    Regardless of that, it is very disappointing to note the risk/benefit or even pure--dare I say it--romanticism of spaceflight. It's been nearly half a century since we went to the Moon, and our technology since then has advanced almost immeasurably. Yet--has our engineering talent, scientific motivation, and will to discover followed?
  • Re:Wow... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 29, 2009 @02:20PM (#30262748)

    Don't expect it to be cheap to train astronauts. They have be intelligent, fit, and highly trained. Combined with the risks involved, I'd imagine astronauts be worth quite a bit in terms of money.

    Also, the cost of a vehicle lost and everything else (normal launch cost that became pointless). The cost of failing a mission due to a lost space rocket could also be considered big though hard to quantify in dollars.

    I'd imagine it be would be cheaper in the long run to reduce the risks. 1 out of 129 while is small odds for a single launch, it can hardly be safe for multiple flights over time.

  • Re:Unpopular (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TheKidWho ( 705796 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @02:22PM (#30262766)

    Unpopular? No, it's simply idiotic.

  • Re:Wow... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by smallfries ( 601545 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @02:25PM (#30262782) Homepage

    What complete idiocy! By the same rational if we could half costs in the space program in exchange for a 1:12 chance of disaster it would stupid not to do so?

    There is a trade-off between risk and price. You are indicating a particular point on that continuum and claiming it is stupid to look anywhere else, but without any justification whatsoever.

  • Make it safer? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Theodore ( 13524 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @02:25PM (#30262792)

    The whole history of launching stuff into space in basically strapping something onto a bomb, and trying to control the way it explodes.
    Comparing the earliest manmade flights, basically using ICBMs, to... to....
    I was going to say today's tech, but the shuttle is almost 30 years old, so it really isn't today's tech.
    Soyuz? Proton? Ariane?
    It's all still focusing a huge amount of volatile explosives to a constricted area, hoping it doesn't all go pear shaped.
    Add to that environmental concerns (this bug that's 10,000 miles away won't fuck if it so much as smells rocket exhaust, so use something else),
    it's a wonder we get up there as safely as we do.

  • by Grygus ( 1143095 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @02:52PM (#30262956)

    Imagine the army, or the navy, organized like NASA is. We'd have 500 soldiers, 500 doctors, 1000 accountants, 1500 medics, 20,000 officer (with at least 1000 flag officers) and 500 hopeful politicians. Not to mention about 50 infiltrators from the competition. Oh, I forgot the 200 embedded journalists.

    If war was run like space exploration, this would be an excellent point.

    Mandatory safety standards will need to be codified whether the effort is undertaken by NASA or private enterprise. This is more or less a "put your money where your mouth is" test for Congress; they will have a hard time justifying tougher standards than they themselves were willing to pay for, after all.

  • Re:Wow... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by dmartin ( 235398 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @02:52PM (#30262958)

    Where does the number 2:1 come from (I take it we are just looking at the shuttle budget, not NASAs entire budget)?

    As you rightly point out, if 1:1000 is achievable with the same budget as 1:129 then it would be evil not to do it.

    What if it cost an extra $10 to go from 1:129 to 1:1000? How about $10,000? Or $10,000,000?

    I agree that at some point it is no longer worth it, and that implicitly we do place value on a humans lives. But how much is it worth? That is maybe a better question than the ratio of "2:1", as I don't even know what quantity you are doubling.

    (Possibilities are the entire NASA budget, the shuttle budget, or the actual budget for the launch. For the last of these, 2:1 does not seem particularly outrageous.)

  • by CodeBuster ( 516420 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @02:53PM (#30262972)

    Why does NASA have to campaign for greater safety standards? Why can't they implement them without the "politicians" approval?

    Perhaps they wish to hobble private competitors, like SpaceX, with so many onerous restrictions and regulations that they exit the launch business and leave NASA with a government funded monopoly. NASA doesn't really care about how much launches cost, up to a point, but they do care about having to compete with a private agency for their Raison d'être []. This is about using the power of government to eliminate or at least severely restrict the marketplace for private launches. One has to know how federal government bureaucrats think to understand this. Federal bureaucrats generally want three things:

    • Their first priority is to ensure that their budget is never cut or that if it is cut then it is cut as little as possible and increased again as soon as possible (generally during the next budget cycle).
    • Their second priority, if possible, is to have their budget increased in each budget cycle.
    • Finally, their third priority is to have the scope and powers of their agency increased so that the first two priorities become ever easier to achieve in subsequent budget cycles.

    In this way the successful bureaucrat becomes lord of their of political fiefdom within the vast domain of government; protected from competition, indispensable, and mandated to exist for all eternity.

  • by SteveWoz ( 152247 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @03:16PM (#30263132) Homepage

    The solution is to make it so that a politician's child has to ride on each trip.

  • Re:Wow... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tftp ( 111690 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @03:29PM (#30263206) Homepage

    agree that at some point it is no longer worth it, and that implicitly we do place value on a humans lives. But how much is it worth?

    It is worth much more than it would cost to make the launch vehicle safe. The STS problem - and its death toll - is in deliberate design that made emergency escape impossible pretty much in any part of the launch or descent. Capsule based designs could survive both incidents if the capsule is strong enough to perform a ballistic reentry on its own. The problem is that you can't make such a capsule large enough to hold 7 people. STS design went for capacity and payload, at great risk to safety.

  • BS numbers (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Lord Byron II ( 671689 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @04:12PM (#30263484)

    The demonstrated failure rate is ABSOLUTELY meaningless with such a low rate of loss. The actual failure rate could be 1 in 10 or 1 in 10,000, but with only 129 samples and 1 failure, you've got no idea which one it really is. Maybe we're already at 1 in 1000.

    I hate this probabilistic view anyway. If you know that the failure rate should be 1 in 1000, then you must know what will fail .1% of the time. Fix those flaws and now you should have a perfect vehicle. Of course, you don't have a perfect vehicle, because there are problems you don't know about. So when you think that you have a 1 in 1000 rate, you actually will have a lower one. So, if the goal is to get to a rate that is 1 in 1000, once we're there the unknowns might lower it to 1 in 129, which is where we are (demonstratively) at.

    Put another way, think about how safe the space shuttle is now. In its service lifetime, we've seen two fatal flaws demonstrated: foam and O-rings. The O-rings have been fixed and the foam has been mitigated. Over 129 launches, every dangerous problem has been fixed, minimized, or mitigated. Now we're going to dump a vehicle that has had 30 years of improvements built in and hope to do better with a new design.

    It would be like if we did a "rm -rdf ." on the kernel archives, stuck Linus and the kernel developers in a room, and let them start over. How long would it take to redevelop an OS that is as secure as Linux? Linux has 20 years of development and security fixes. Even with a better design plan and all of the combined experience, would it take them a year to duplicate the safety? Two years? Five? Ten?

  • Re:Wow... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by santiagodraco ( 1254708 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @05:04PM (#30263710)

    I'm sure glad you are not designing or administering the security features of the cars I drive. Or the planes I fly in. Or the inspection proceedures for the food I eat. I can go on and on....

  • by Esteanil ( 710082 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @06:18PM (#30264170) Homepage Journal
    You know, of course, that the AIG bailout alone would pay for 10 years of running NASA at current budget levels?
    That the Iraq war would pay for 41 years, and the Afghanistan one for an additional 17?

    The 17.6 billion NASA got this year wouldn't pay for much, much less the 9 billion you want to take.
    Removing NASA (as a halving of the budget effectively would do, as written by posters above) would reduce US prestige quite a bit, though.
  • Re:Wow... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by turgid ( 580780 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @06:33PM (#30264292) Journal

    If 1:1000 is achievable with the same budget as 1:129 then it'd be evil not to do it - but if it increases costs by even 2:1 it is stupid to even suggest it. America's losing its balls.

    This insanity got modded +5 insightful. Luckily this is only slashdot, or I'd be worried for the future of humanity.

    By your reasoning, why not remove any pretense of manned space flight being a return trip? Why not save a whole lot of dollars and leave the astronauts to die in space, or to burn up on reentry? It would make the engineering so much simpler and think of the weight savings to be made by not including heat shields and parachutes!

    After all: It amazes me that this is a serious concern. There IS a price for manned spaceflight and if it goes too high, it's over. Astronauts know the risks and willingly take them.

    I know you'd be first in line to volunteer, cowboy!

  • by FleaPlus ( 6935 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @06:40PM (#30264352) Journal

    Why does NASA have to campaign for greater safety standards? Why can't they implement them without the "politicians" approval?

    Because unfortunately, it's quite likely that the main reason this is being done is to shut out competitors in private spaceflight. It goes something like this:

    * Although the Astronaut Corps is full of brave and intelligent individuals, the fact of the matter is that they have a huge revolving door with ATK, an aerospace/defense contractor which specializes in solid motors. Astronauts know it's quite likely that they'll become an executive at ATK after their astronaut gig is up, and quite a few gigs will be up once the Space Shuttle is retired.

    * ATK is a major contractor on the Ares I rocket, which has claims of being 100x-1000x safer than the alternatives, due to the fact that it uses a single large ATK solid motor as its first stage. Of course, quite a few aerospace engineers believe that these claims are total bullshit, and it's quite possible that despite NASA and ATK's publicized calculations, in practice the Ares I will actually be more dangerous than the alternatives (EELVs, DIRECT, SpaceX, etc.). There's a number of potential problems with the Ares I which aren't accounted for in the calculations: thrust oscillation, solid propellant debris clouds, the added difficulty of escaping from a solid rocket, the fact that safety systems have had to be cut out due to mass constraints, etc. Also, the sort of accident factors which go into the Ares I's supposed super-safe accident probability calculations actually only account for an absurdly small percentage of launch accidents in practice.

    * Recently the fate of the Ares I has become uncertain, as people are questioning if its wise for NASA to spend $35 billion of its limited funding to develop a new medium-lift rocket which won't be ready until 2017-2019, when plenty of other medium-lift rockets already exist and could become equipped for manned launch for prices ranging from a few hundred million to $3 billion.

    * It remains to be seen what'll happen at the hearing, but my guess is that a number of those testifying from NASA will claim that Ares I will be dramatically safer than commercial alternatives, and therefore Ares should continue getting funding instead of looking at alternatives. They'll probably cite the bullshit safety figures again to try to bolster their case. I believe there's one person testifying [] who's a proponent of commercial spaceflight, and I suspect he'll be beaten down by Congress.

    * It's looking like Rep. Jim Oberstar might be heading the hearing. Back in 2004 Oberstar tried (in the interest of safety, of course) to kill off commercial suborbital spaceflight companies [] like Virgin Galactic by having them regulated at the same sort of levels that mature commercial airlines are regulated.

  • Re:Wow... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by khallow ( 566160 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @07:39PM (#30264732)

    What complete idiocy! By the same rational if we could half costs in the space program in exchange for a 1:12 chance of disaster it would stupid not to do so?

    Well, the question then becomes is the rationale being applied correctly? Would we really halve costs by having a failure rate of 1 in 12 launches? The answer can be "yes", if we're launching non-vital bulk materials like propellant, but "no", if we're launching 6 astronauts or multi-billion dollar satellites.

  • Yeah, this is nuts (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sean.peters ( 568334 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @09:06PM (#30265242) Homepage
    I'm all in favor of increased spending on domestic priorities, but NASA's budget is not the place to look. The real money is in the defense/homeland security budgets, which combined are pushing a trillion dollars a year (when you include costs for various wars, VA costs, and actual DOD/DHS budgets). Why is it, exactly, that we're spending more on the DOD alone than the entire rest of the world - combined - spends on defense?
  • by sean.peters ( 568334 ) on Sunday November 29, 2009 @09:28PM (#30265314) Homepage
    ... by just not going at all. The point is that we have an obligation to provide a launch system for our astronauts that provides reasonable levels of safety for them. It is just plain unethical even to ask people to volunteer for what amounts to a game of Russian roulette without a much better reason than messing around with the ISS.

You will never amount to much. -- Munich Schoolmaster, to Albert Einstein, age 10