"A Word of Caution"
Dr. George C. Nield, Washington, D.C.
July 17, 2008

The Space Frontier Foundation New Space 2008 Conference


Thank you very much for inviting me to share a few words with you today.

Actually, I’d like to talk about one specific word in the lexicon of commercial space transportation, a word that’s extremely important both to me and to our industry.

First, though, let me tell you a little story.

Each May, a very interesting and sometimes inspiring event is held for young people here in Washington. It’s known as the National Spelling Bee. This year, one of the contestants was asked to spell a word that I had never even heard of before.

The first thing she did was ask for alternative pronunciations. Then she asked the moderator to repeat the definition. Next, she asked for the word’s origin, and finally for the definition one more time.

Clearly stumped and looking very sad, she summoned up her courage and asked the only question that could possibly help her.

“Can I have an easier word?”

I sympathize with her predicament.

Every day in the world of commercial space transportation, we have to deal with one of the hardest words of all, and the one that’s on my mind all the time: safety.

It’s a very powerful word. It’s universally respected and occasionally controversial. Either way, safety is completely unforgiving. Everyone involved in space flight is deeply committed to it, even though the definition never seems to stand still, and agreement on the particulars is not always easy to reach.

What seems “safe enough” to some is “barely” safe enough for others, which is to say, in their view, not safe.

Just about everyone agrees that safety has something to do with not getting hurt, but there is often a wide range of opinion on the best way to do that.

One thing for sure, in a world as fresh, new, and untested as the passenger side of commercial space transportation, there is no more important word in our vocabulary —and none harder — than safety.

You know, I sometimes hear people make comparisons between the Golden Age of aviation and today’s emerging commercial space age. I’ve done it myself, but only to the extent that they both constitute periods of significant innovation that seemed to offer the promise of a future filled with rapid technological progress.

But if you look at what people were flying in the 1930s and then look at the rockets under construction today, you realize that what’s going on now represents a very different level of risk.

In contrast to the aircraft of aviation’s Golden Age, or even contemporary commercial aviation, today’s rocket planes and rocket ships have a lot more in common with NASA’s X-Planes or the Air Force Century Series.

For the foreseeable future, commercial human space flight is going to be a risky business.

Let’s look at the numbers. NASA figures show that between 1946 and 1995, in experimental vehicles ranging from the X-1 to the X-31A, there were 2,110 flights. That’s roughly 43 flights a year, although some years had many and others had few. Those flights produced 27 accidents and four fatalities. That’s not a lot, but it’s enough to make clear the danger involved.

How about for the Century Series?  I’m talking about production military aircraft like the F-100 Super Sabre, the F-101 Voodoo, the F-102 Delta Dagger, the F-104 Starfighter, the F-105 Thunderchief, and the F-106 Delta Dart, all of which were built and flown extensively from the 1950’s through the 1970’s.

The F-100 suffered 471 accidents. The F-104 Starfighter had 196, and the F-102 Delta Dagger wasn’t far behind. In the 1960s, the German Luftwaffe had 917 Starfighters, of which 270 crashed, killing 110 pilots.

High performance aircraft, especially when flown at the limit of their capabilities, do not come equipped with a “lifetime guarantee” for those onboard.

The vehicles that private citizens will fly into suborbital space may not push the envelope of aeronautical knowledge like the X-15. But the spacecraft that are designed for commercial human space flight will likely share a closer kinship with some of those temperamental, high-performance vehicles than with a regional commercial jet.

Certainly Congress had both history and high performance craft in mind when they passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004. In fact, the front end of that legislation had several words of caution.

“Space transportation is inherently risky,” it said, “and the future of the commercial human space flight industry will depend on its ability to continually improve its safety performance.”

There’s a warning there. Another observation followed quickly. “The regulatory standards governing human space flight must evolve as the industry matures,” Congress said.

Congress understood very clearly that it is important to get ahead of the curve on commercial human space flight. They knew that the principal body of data was still to be gathered. And they recognized that as events unfold, we may need to amend our regulatory approach in the interests of safer operations in the future.

Safety clearly needs to be the first thing we think about in commercial space transportation. And yet, the safest way to design, build, or operate a spaceship is not always abundantly clear. In fact, our best efforts today might look primitive from the perspective of tomorrow. No doubt there will be much to surprise us as new technology is developed, and as we grow in wisdom and experience.

Why is safety such a big deal?  Everybody knows that accidents happen. Well, let’s talk about it. The Challenger accident took place on the 25th flight of the Space Shuttle. Imagine for a moment that on its 25th operational flight, a suborbital reusable launch vehicle experiences a major malfunction during ascent, followed by vehicle breakup. The crew and passengers are killed, along with a dozen members of the uninvolved public from a nearby neighborhood, who are hit by falling debris.

What do you suppose the reaction would be in the press, on television, and on Capitol Hill?  Whether the operator was a large, established aerospace firm, or a small, entrepreneurial one, I suspect that the response would be pretty much the same. There would probably be a call for an immediate halt to all commercial spaceflight operations. Perhaps there would be a lengthy Congressional investigation, complete with televised hearings. We would likely hear recommendations for more regulations, tighter restrictions, and additional inspections. We may even see an end to the business of commercial human space flight before it has much of a chance to get started.

What can we do to prevent such a scenario?

First, to the extent that we can make it happen, all of those involved have to do everything they can to make commercial spaceflight as safe as humanly possible.

Second, when we face key decisions on proposed operations, we need to emulate the medical profession and get a second opinion. In other words, once you think you’re sure, make sure.

Keith Richards — songwriter and guitarist for The Rolling Stones — put it this way. “I’ve always thought songs written by two people are better than those written by one. You get another angle on it.”

I agree. Training, team work, following the checklist, just plain “paying attention” are key ingredients when it comes to launch vehicle safety.

Let me share with you some perspectives on the practice and processes of safety in commercial human spaceflight.

First, much as I wish it were, safety is not an absolute.

Climbing aboard a rocket bound for space carries with it the potential for drastically rearranging whatever else you may have had planned for the following day. So safety must override assumptions, shortcuts, and the potentially false and dangerous sense of comfort that “what has always worked before is bound to work again.”

Safety is a mindset, a professional tension where all the people involved in providing a rocket trip are constantly on edge, determined to get it right. It requires continuous and exacting attention.

Second, even at that high order of readiness, safety does not, nor can it ever, immunize anyone against unforeseen bad things. Misfortune will always be out there in the crowd somewhere, but we are committed to doing our best to keep it from getting close enough to cause harm.

Third, no one in our office will ever claim to know it all when it comes to commercial human spaceflight. Anyone who says they do should probably consider another profession.

What we do know is that we have an obligation to execute our congressional mandate for safety.

So do those we regulate.

Fourth, safety isn’t something we negotiate. At the same time, we all recognize the value of conversation to advance the cause of safety.

Especially now, when so much is new and untried, we have to keep the communications channels open at all times.

The quest for the safest possible operations is not a contest between developer and regulator. It is, as it must be, a professional, arm’s-length, ongoing mutual search for the best way to safely launch and recover vehicles carrying passengers into space.

We get nowhere if a private operator claims to know it all, a government agency claims to know better, and the talking stops. Instead we need to work together in the search for safety, always approaching this critical work with a brand of constructive and civil candor.

In the end, however, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation needs to make the call, as Congress has charged us to do. Our plan is do exactly that, based upon the best information we can get, always mindful that our job is about safety, not popularity.

Those are the basics of our approach to safety. They are in place because, as Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins has written, “The laws of aerodynamics are unforgiving, and the ground is very hard.”

You can’t make it any plainer or more chilling than that.

So, as I conclude, let me return to the young contestant at the beginning of these remarks.

She was given a tough word.

The word assigned to our office — safety — is much tougher. In the world of rockets, it’s our job to spell it out every day and get it right every time.

We are determined to do just that.

Thank you very much.

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