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Panel Warns NASA On Commercial Astronaut Transport 319

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 Shivetya ( 243324 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:08AM (#30858852) Homepage Journal

    than paying another country to take our astronauts into space?

    I see no difference, other than we cannot truly hold other countries to the strictest standards that we all know we would impose on commercial endeavors

  • by v1 ( 525388 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:09AM (#30858860) Homepage Journal

    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.

    All that money that nasa is spending is invested in making things as safe as possible. Rocket science really is rocket science. If you're not spending that money, you have to expect your safety to go to hell.

  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:09AM (#30858866)
    Because their bureaucracy has done such an excellent job in the last 35 years of getting us back to the moon, to Mars, etc. and delivering on all the multitude of other promises they've made via decades of press releases and computer animation.
  • by Ada_Rules ( 260218 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:10AM (#30858878) Homepage Journal
    Umm... NASA also relies on "unsubstantiated claims" and need to overcome major technical hurdles before they can safely carry astronauts into orbit. The shuttle has about a 1 in 65 chance of catastrophic failure resulting in loss of the crew. For all of its vaunted simplicity, the Apollo flights only flew 18 times and had one very very close loss of the crew in space (and of course one actual loss of crew on the ground). I honestly don't know if private companies will do better or not but it is not as if NASA's record in this area is all that great either. Having a somewhat adversarial relationship between private enterprise and the government as we have with airlines appears to have contributed to overall safe air travel. I think it is worth a shot to try it in space. When the government is both the provider of a service and the one auditing it, you end up with no independent evaluators except at the accident boards.
  • Translation (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Rockoon ( 1252108 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:11AM (#30858894)

    Nobody offered us a bribe.
  • by joeyblades ( 785896 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:21AM (#30859022)
    You're kidding, right? Challenger, the worst space program disaster of all time, occured because NASA ignored all warnings from Morton Thiokol to postpone the launch. NASA's reasons for pressing on, in spite of these warnings, was entirely commercial.
  • Hmmm (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:23AM (#30859046)

    I don't know enough about space flight to form a rational opinion for or against commercial ferrying.

  • by zwei2stein ( 782480 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:24AM (#30859050) Homepage

    (because airplanes drop left and right because boeing wanted to save costs on wind materials ... not)

    Faced with how much dead astronauts would cost em, they would definitelly not cut every possible corner.

    One thing is saving few bucks by using X instead of Y, another having crash-reputation and having to pay-off families of deceased and/or cost of cargo.

    Anyhow, being you, I would really reconsider "All that money that nasa is spending is invested in making things as safe as possible" statement anyway. They most certainly are not spending those money on that, that is given by fact that is is goverment agency responsible for quite nice funds, funds that friends of people who are in charge of them could do with even if they offer slightly wrose product.

  • by EWAdams ( 953502 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:24AM (#30859058) Homepage

    ... is not really what I want people thinking about when I ride a limited-edition experimental craft into the most dangerous place there is. I want them thinking about keeping my ass alive and nothing else.

  • Re:Bad bad idea (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:26AM (#30859072)
    FYI, the website sets its font a certain way for a reason. do you really have to fuck with it? why? to be "noticed"??? attention whore.
  • Re:Bad bad idea (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LUH 3418 ( 1429407 ) <> on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:27AM (#30859090)
    The problem is that there isn't much market for transporting humans to space. Even if they could do it at a third of the cost NASA can manage, it would still be too expensive for everyone but the richest of the richest. Practically, the only people with the interest and the budget right now are government agencies.

    Beyond that, the rockets used to launch people into space are usually not the same as those used for satellite launches, limiting the usability of that equipment for other purposes.
  • by Attila Dimedici ( 1036002 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:38AM (#30859192)

    ... is not really what I want people thinking about when I ride a limited-edition experimental craft into the most dangerous place there is. I want them thinking about keeping my ass alive and nothing else.

    Right, because it is so profitable to be known as a company that kills your passengers. On another note, who are you recommending to do it then, because it seems that the people at NASA are thinking about covering thier ass, not about keeping the astronauts alive.

  • by McGregorMortis ( 536146 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:42AM (#30859230)

    Those O-rings had a safety factor of three!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:42AM (#30859242)

    While the first one with the O-ring maybe was simply tragic, the second one with crappy environmentally friendly tile modifications was most definitely caused by NASA management listening to environmentalist dipshits instead of the experts.

    First one was simply tragic? Wasn't the first one a result of NASA management ignoring what Morton Thiokol engineers said regarding launches in freezing temperatures? They had to get the first teacher into space and a delay would have been embarrassing. So they opted to not have a delay and they had a tragedy instead.

  • Re:Bad bad idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sir_Lewk ( 967686 ) <> on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:50AM (#30859328)

    Don't think that only NASA does design, and contractors just do manafacturing, the relationship is much more complex, with good engineers on both sides of the table. NASA does not have a monopoly on good engineers, or even a monopoly on engineers with a good track record.

    Also, knock it off with the monospaced font. If people wanted to read things that way, they'd have configured their browsers that way. As it is, you just come off as an attention whore who feels the need to artificially attract attention to his posts.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:53AM (#30859362)

    Boeing also said that they could build a virtual fence on the Mexican border in 3 years and for $1Billion. 5+ years later, the $1 Billion is gone, the virtual fence covers 26 miles, and it doesn't work! Defense contractors need to be held to higher standards, and not granted any cost-plus contracts,

  • by MobyDisk ( 75490 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:57AM (#30859392) Homepage

    Then don't drive a car. FYI: They were made by for-profit companies.

  • by MaWeiTao ( 908546 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:57AM (#30859400)

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

    If anything people at NASA are almost definitely erring on the side of excessive caution knowing what kind of backlash they'll get from the ignorant masses if anything more goes wrong.

  • by oh_my_080980980 ( 773867 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @10:58AM (#30859408)
    And the other country we are relying is Russia. They have the same experience as NASA.

    This *IS* ROCKET SCIENCE. We should not be taking chances with private companies that will transport people at a "competitive cost."

    They can't get plans to fly on-time, why do you think they can handle space travel!!
  • by GiveBenADollar ( 1722738 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @11:04AM (#30859482)

    Those O-rings had a safety factor of three!

    When used at the proper temperatures, which they weren't. A private company wouldn't have used them in the same situation because of the liability involved.

  • by DJRumpy ( 1345787 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @11:17AM (#30859658)

    Although I can see some benefit to keeping this under government control, here we are 40 years later, using the same basic technologies while lacking the same capabilities that put us on the moon. It seems that the only thing that's happened at NASA in the last 50 years is a lot of money has been spent. We have the shuttle, based on a hybrid of flight end propulsion technologies during that time, but it's old, dated, and long past it's prime. Is there any reason NASA can't certify the safety of such after it's submitted by the private sector?

    I can't help but wonder if it's time to let the private sector in. Some competitiveness, innovation, and new blood are what's needed right now, not NASA.

  • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Friday January 22, 2010 @11:21AM (#30859696) Homepage Journal

    Because we all know a government run monopoly is the most cost effective means of doing something.

    My power company, CWLP [], is a government run monopoly, owned by the city of Springfield. We have the cheapest electricity in the state, and and the most reliable power.

    In March, 2006 two F-2 tornados (almost F-3s) tore through Springfield [] and completely destroyed the electrical infrastructure in my neighborhood and a lot of other neighborhoods. There wasn't a single unbroken utility pole, nor a single wire that didn't touch the ground. The transformers were all on the ground, on roofs, and in trees. They had to completely rebuild, and my power was back on in a week.

    Later that spring a single weak F-1 went through the St Louis area. I visited a friend in Cahokia on the Illinois side of the river, served by the private power company Amerin three weeks later, and the only evidence that there had been a tornado at all was that my friend's power was still out.

    Amerin is my natural gas company, and their customer service is abysmal. CWLP's customer service is for the most part excellent. The reason is, if I'm unhappy with my electrical service I'm liable to vote against the Mayor next election, but if I'm unhappy with my gas service there's absolutely nothing I can do; it's not like I can get another gas company.

    If you have choices, the free market works well. With a monopoly there is no free market, and you are far better served by it being a government monopoly.

  • by Luminair ( 515136 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @11:21AM (#30859702)

    for some reason astronaut Dr. Leroy Chiao thinks differently "Soyuz has a very special place in my heart. It is a robust, capable spacecraft and launcher. It has the best-demonstrated safety record of any manned spacecraft. And, it just feels hearty."

    why could that be

  • by rhook ( 943951 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @11:22AM (#30859714)
    It was more the result of management at Morton Thiokol refusing to do anything about the problem, they're the ones who declared the shuttle safe for launch at the last minute during a teleconference.
  • by couchslug ( 175151 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @11:33AM (#30859838)

    The problem that would be solved by paying other countries to fly missions is that we overvalue astronauts to the point where protecting them has made _using_ them prohibitive.

    We cheerfully drive cars that kill tens of thousands in the US every year, and accept lots of other deathy/woundy/cripply outcomes as the cost of doing business. We can do that with astronauts if we get NASA and government out of manned launches thus ending public expectations of perfection.

    All pre-astronaut models of Terran exploration understood that people are cheap and wrote off lots of them. The bravery of those who succeeded met with public praise, a reasonable reward for the right sort of fellow. We forget the legacy test pilots, but those guys knew the risk, thrived when challenged, and accomplished great things. Get manned missions out of NASA, use NASA for science instead of tourism, and learn about the universe instead of wasting limited resources.

  • by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @12:02PM (#30860204) Journal

    "...private space companies rely on "unsubstantiated claims" and need to overcome major technical hurdles before they can safely carry astronauts into orbit..."

    Of COURSE they warn that.
    They are bloated bureaucrats who are trembling at the idea of the free market possibly threatening their sinecure.

    Look, we ALL know that space travel is dangerous. (NASA doesn't exactly have a 100% safety record EITHER...) Personally, I think the private industry space travel isn't quite ready for prime-time either, and that could be a basis for a sincere warning being issued by NASA. But that industry isn't going to see any reason to invest and improve if space travel remains locked in as a government-only business.

    OTOH, it's more likely that you have an entrenched bunch of government employees that don't like the sound of the word 'competition'.

  • by benjfowler ( 239527 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @12:18PM (#30860410)

    It should be pointed out too, that R&D costs SERIOUS money. If we were to fly to the Moon today, it'd be way cheaper, relatively speaking, than in the 1960s. All the technology's better, we have experience operating in space, we know what to expect, what corners to cut, what not to scrimp on, etc etc.

    That kind of R&D spending is *FAR* beyond what any private enterprise is willing to invest, regardless of the potential payoff. You require the willpower and fundraising capability of a huge nation-state like the USA to pull that off; this is why America's achievement of putting a man on the Moon in a decade will probably never be matched again.

    As an aside, SpaceX have reached orbit on private money, and are about to get into heavy lift and (eventually) human spaceflight. They have the **MASSIVE** benefit of leveraging the billions of dollars already spent by governments and militaries in building the systems that they're copying.

    I'm getting tired of rebutting the right-wing myth that private enterprise can always do everything better. Because despite the fervent wishes of the 12-year-old "Atlas Shrugged" fan crowd, there are just some things in this world that require massive, coordinated action -- best run by governments.

  • by Ellis D. Tripp ( 755736 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @12:31PM (#30860580) Homepage

    Yes, I noticed that shortly after I posted that I used the wrong word there. Limbaugh didn't actually ORIGINATE this particular bullshit story, he simply drew upon his presumably vast knowledge of polymer chemistry and aerospace manufacturing techniques to lend creedence to an unsubstantiated claim made by one of his guests. After all, if it makes environmentalists look bad, then "it sounded likely" to Mr. Limbaugh.

    His legions of dittohead followers then picked up on the story and gave it so much traction that it repeatedly surfaces to this day in most discussions of the Columbia accident.

    Nothing like using the tragic deaths of 7 astronauts to advance your own career and political agenda. The man is a true douchenozzle.

  • by Dishevel ( 1105119 ) * on Friday January 22, 2010 @12:40PM (#30860684)
    The problem with the Environmentalists is not that they want clean air and water. Which for the most part we have thanks to them now. It is that once we get these things it is never enough. To them the water will never be clean enough. It dose not matter to them that it will cost California millions of jobs to pass a regulation that will clean the air a negligible amount. The need for which was "proven" by a statistician who faked their PHD. Yet CARB will push the regulations through anyway. Because more is better. Right?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 22, 2010 @01:01PM (#30860932)

    Then get private investors and go! No one is holding you!

    For Pete's sake, ALL Nasa wants to avoid is buying shit from people they don't know with questionable track record, to launch astronauts under NASA's own name and at NASA's liability. Who's funding is questioned when the private companies rocket blows up? Yes, it's NASA. Why? Because the private company can just fold up after they've cut corners.

    I'm all for private companies launching things. But they haven't launched shit with their own stuff into orbit yet. The first stop for a company to be certified reliable is to have their design function in the field for number of years. That means launching things. They should be happy to ferry supplies and other non-critical components until their track record matches their egos.

    And no, I'm not talking about Boeing or Lockheed. They *have* a track record. And even then they fuck up (see Genesis with upside down accelerometer and then NASA got the blame).

    There is a lucrative unmanned space business. That's where these new companies should compete.

  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Friday January 22, 2010 @01:06PM (#30861000)
    Interesting spin. You're comparing Soyuz failures in the 1960's to NASA's failures in 1986 and 2003. Not one person has been injured during a manned Soyuz launch since the 1971 and there have been no in-flight failures since 1975. The modern Soyuz is far safer than the shuttle and has demonstrated it with a almost 40 years of spotless performance.
  • by jfruhlinger ( 470035 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @01:09PM (#30861052) Homepage

    If we privatise space flight that means less taxes ... NASA should just provide funding via Grants/Loans/etc.

    And what's going to be the source of the money for those grants and loans?

    If we privatize space travel to the ISS (which is really what this is about), NASA and your tax dollars (along with Russian and European tax dollars) will still be paying for it. Heck, it's not like NASA's own spacecraft are built in-house by government employees. You're still talking about dealing with government contractors; you'll just be outsourcing the project management that NASA used to do. It may or may not be cheaper, but don't pretend you'll be handing spaceflight over to the magical free market. The government will be paying these private companies with your tax dollars.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 22, 2010 @03:43PM (#30862634)
    You think that it's laudable that the man uses weasel words to avoid legal liability when implying/propagating lies? If it was an occasional occurrence then it might be excusable, but he's got enough of a track record that it's pretty clearly a strategy for increasing controversy, raising his profile, and profiting from it via advertising sales. That the majority of his audience laps it up when most of them claim to be followers of a philosophy that has as one of its keystones "Thou shall not bear false witness" is pretty ironic.
  • by rgarbacz ( 1450155 ) on Friday January 22, 2010 @05:24PM (#30863648)
    Space flights indeed are dangerous and for some time to come will remain in the domain of exploration rather than tourism, but your claim that NASA has no faults in the disasters which happened is not true. Space shuttle, although an awesome looking vehicle, is inherently not safe:
    • it is the only man space vehicle with heat shield not protected, where any foam isolation debrees (or any other object, which happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time) can easily damage it (all other vehicles are put on top of a rocket), if it followed proven concept Columbia accident would not happen
    • it is the only man space vehicle without launch escape system (all other vehicles have small rockets, which take the man capsule away from a rocked in case of any early flight failures), if it followed this basic safety guidelines the astronauts from Challenger most likely would survive the catastrophe (they were still alive after the explosion)

"The eleventh commandment was `Thou Shalt Compute' or `Thou Shalt Not Compute' -- I forget which." -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982