"Suborbital Spaceflight Managing the Risk"
Dr. George C. Nield, Orlando, Florida
February 28, 2011

Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference


After looking over the agenda, I’m sure you will agree that this is going to be a fantastic conference. There will be sessions on all of the key scientific disciplines, briefings about the various launch systems that are under development, and information sharing about some of the new capabilities that are coming on line both for payload integration and for training. It’s all very exciting. But this morning I’d like to talk about another subject, one that may be a little more uncomfortable to talk about perhaps, but one that all of us need to be knowledgeable about and to be honest about. And that topic is risk.

What do we mean by risk? Well, it probably depends on whom you are talking to. The dictionary defines risk as the chance of injury, damage, or loss. Something is considered risky if it is dangerous or unsafe. You’ll hear some people say that having major surgery is risky, that flying on an airplane is risky, that mountain climbing or bungee jumping is risky. In the system safety community, however, risk usually refers to the expected value of an undesirable outcome, thus combining the severity of a hazard and its likelihood. For example, even if an activity could theoretically result in fatalities or serious injuries, if that outcome is highly unlikely, then it might be considered acceptable from a system safety perspective.

Should risky activities even be allowed? In a free society like ours, most people would say “yes”, as long as you aren’t putting anyone else in danger. So we do need to keep track of who is being put at risk: is it someone who has volunteered to participate in the activity and who is accepting the potential for negative outcomes, or are we talking about the public at large, people who logically have no interest in being harmed as a result of someone else’s thrill-seeking.

We may also want to look at additional factors; for example, whether there are any specific benefits from the activity. Government agencies frequently evaluate proposed courses of action based on a cost/benefit analysis that attempts to quantify whether the action is reasonable, according to whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

It may be helpful to provide a little context to put things into perspective. Let’s have some audience participation on this one. Based on the cold, hard facts, which is riskier, flying on a commercial airliner or skiing? [skiing] How about flying on a commercial airliner or riding a bicycle? [riding a bicycle] Or flying on a commercial airliner or riding in a car? [riding in a car]

Let’s take a look at some environmental hazards. Statistically speaking, are you more likely to be injured from a nuclear power plant or from being hit by lightning? [being hit by lightning] Which do you think is a greater risk, encountering a tornado or being hurt by a falling object? [being hurt by a falling object]

So what’s going on here? It seems clear that people’s perceptions of risk are based on more than just statistics. It turns out that there has been quite a bit of research done in this area, and there are a number of factors that impact the public’s perception of risk. Some of the most significant include:

  • Whether the risk is voluntary or involuntary [involuntary exposure is considered riskier]
  • Whether the risk occurs naturally or is man-made [man-made environments are considered riskier]
  • Whether it is familiar or exotic [exotic events are considered riskier]
  • Whether it is memorable or not memorable – think Challenger or 9/11 [memorable events are considered riskier]
  • Whether the fatalities or injuries are grouped in time and space (like for an airplane crash), or are scattered or spread out over time (like they are for auto accidents) [catastrophic events are considered riskier]
  • Whether it is individually controlled or controlled by others [events controlled by others are considered riskier]
  • Whether the information is being provided by trustworthy sources or untrustworthy sources [events described by untrustworthy sources are considered riskier]

Is risk a bad thing?

Not necessarily. It may be part of the thrill. It may be an unavoidable consequence of some of the benefits we are seeking. Or it may just be a fact of life.

Should we try to eliminate it? Mitigate it? Minimize it?

Be careful what you ask for. It seems to me that the only way to eliminate all risk in human spaceflight is not to launch at all. So what is the appropriate role for government to have in managing risk and in educating the public about risk? Frankly, I think this is an area where there is a lot of room for improvement.

I’ve heard people say that once the Shuttle is retired, we should not allow our astronauts to fly on any of the new rockets industry is developing until NASA is convinced that they are safe. If that’s the attitude we have, and if those are the words we are using to describe our goals to the public, the media, and the Congress, I think we are setting ourselves up for failure.

Spaceflight is inherently risky. We all know that. Even Congress has acknowledged as much in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004. The environment is unforgiving. And most of the systems that have been built to travel to space are operating at the very limits of their capability. Now it’s true that NASA has many extremely smart, capable, and hard-working employees: managers, engineers, technicians and others. But two of NASA’s 132 Space Shuttle missions have ended in tragedy. That’s a fatal accident rate of 1 in 66 flights, which is pretty darn high. As a point of comparison, the fatal accident rate for commercial airliners is more than 10,000 times safer, on the order of one in every million flights. Now that doesn’t mean NASA is doing a bad job of running our human spaceflight program. But we do need to be cautious about enshrining our current way of doing business as the only acceptable approach. To imply that only NASA is capable of safely flying people to space, or that American industry isn’t capable of doing the job equally well, if not better, is not only unfair, it’s just flat-out wrong.

This stuff is hard! So what should we do? Well, I’d like to see us all take on the challenge and work on this together: government agencies, industry, and academia, to come up with better designs, better technologies, and better approaches, for getting to and from space. And personally, using aviation as an analogy, I am convinced that the only way we are really going to learn how to build safer, more reliable, and more cost-effective space vehicles is to build a lot of them and fly the heck out of them.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight. It was on April 12, 1961, that Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth. And what do we have to show after 50 years of people traveling to space? Well, a number of very spectacular achievements, for sure: the moon landings, repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, construction of the International Space Station.

But when it comes to opening up access to low-Earth orbit to the general public, or to the business community, or when it comes to learning what we need to know in order to achieve safe, reliable, and cost-effective spaceflight, the record is pretty pathetic.

There have only been a handful of different human spacecraft ever built. And only about 500 people have had the opportunity to experience spaceflight first-hand. After 50 years! That is really sad!

Compare that to the first 50 years of aviation. There were hundreds of different companies building thousands of different aircraft designs, allowing millions of people to travel through the air. And that allowed us to learn from experience, from the school of hard knocks, what worked and what didn’t, what was important, and what wasn’t. And that approach has enabled us to enjoy, today, an amazingly safe mode of transportation, so that when we step on to an airliner to travel to a destination, near or far, we take for granted that we will be arriving safely at the other end.

Certainly the government has played an important role in aviation, by pushing the state of the art to satisfy military requirements during war-time, by conducting and disseminating research, and by eventually instituting a reasonable regulatory framework. But from the beginning, the government didn’t dictate the design of every airplane, it didn’t select and train every crewmember and passenger, and it certainly didn’t operate every airline. Can you imagine what aviation would look like today if the government had had that kind of control during the first 50 years after Kitty Hawk?

That’s why I am so excited about CCDev, NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program. For the first time, the U.S. government will be helping to enable industry to develop the capability to take people to low-Earth orbit, rather than just doing it itself. And if Congress provides sufficient funding, we may soon be able to reap the benefits of competition, with multiple companies using different boosters and a variety of spacecraft to demonstrate the capability to take our astronauts to orbit. It’s going to be fantastic. No more single-string access to space. And no more sitting on the ground for years after an accident.

With all due respect, the last thing we need after the next spaceflight accident, and trust me, there will be one, is a Presidential commission and more congressional hearings. Let’s get the NTSB in there to figure out what went wrong, fix it, and get back to flying. And if one launch system has a problem, let’s use another one, also made in America, while the necessary repairs or modifications are being implemented.

So I’m excited about what lies ahead for commercial crew transportation to LEO. But I’m even more excited about what we will soon be seeing in the world of suborbital spaceflight. Let’s check the numbers. In FY 2010, there were only four licensed launches: a Delta II, a Delta IV, an Atlas 5, and a Falcon 9. All were important missions, and all were successful. But with only four data points per year, it is going to take a long time to learn what we need to know in order to make significant improvements to our systems. In FY 2012, next year, I’m expecting to see more than 100 licensed launches. Granted, most of those will be suborbital launches, but that is still quite a change. With Masten, Armadillo, XCOR, Blue Origin, and Scaled Composites all likely to be flying frequently by that time, the total may even be higher. At that kind of flight rate, our pace of learning, and our ability to make incremental improvements to our designs and our operations, is going to be dramatically enhanced. In fact, I suspect that many of the lessons we learn will be things that can be applied to the next generation of orbital spacecraft, thus helping to make them safer and more operable as well.

Let me close by saying a little bit about what our office has been up to lately. Last year, we established a Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation as a public/private partnership involving government, industry, and academia, to work on areas of interest to the aerospace community. New Mexico State University was chosen as the Administrative Lead, but the overall team includes Stanford, the University of Colorado, UTMB, the New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology, the Florida Institute of Technology, and the Florida Center for Advanced Aero Propulsion. The FAA has committed $1 million per year for the next 10 years to support this effort, and we are very excited about what this group is going to be able to accomplish. You’ll be hearing more about the Center of Excellence later on in the agenda.

Last year was also the first year that we were able to give out Spaceport Grants. You may not realize it, but each year, the FAA gives out about $3.5 billion in Airport Improvement Program grants. That is a very successful program, and it really makes a difference in supporting our national transportation infrastructure. Well, now that we have 8 licensed spaceports, shouldn’t we do something similar for them? Congress thought so, and they authorized exactly such a program back in 1994, but they had never appropriated any funds for us to give out. However, in 2010, we were provided with $500,000 for the grant program, and we selected four different projects to fund, at Kodiak Launch Complex, Alaska; Mojave Air & Spaceport, California; Spaceport America in New Mexico; and Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida.

I’m a big proponent of the value of prizes to stimulate innovation, so I am pleased to announce that in the President’s 2012 budget request, he recommended that we receive $5 million for a low-cost access to space prize. We plan to work with both NASA and DoD to discuss how best to implement the program, but I think our initiative has a lot of potential to benefit this crowd, so please stay tuned for this one.

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about our new FAA Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center. The retirement of the Space Shuttle and the cancellation of the Constellation program are expected to result in the loss of several thousand aerospace jobs in Florida. At the same time, given the increased pace of activity in commercial space transportation, our office is in a position to need some additional help. Based on these two factors, and at the suggestion of Ray LaHood, the Secretary of Transportation, we put together a proposal for an FAA Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center, to be located inside the gate at KSC.

The benefits of the Tech Center include allowing the nation to continue to benefit from the contributions of a significant number of highly skilled workers who will be seeking employment during the next 12 months, and to allow the FAA and NASA to partner in developing an organization with a knowledgeable and experienced staff to regulate future commercial space operations.

The primary focus areas for the Center include Spaceflight Safety, Spaceflight Engineering, Range Operations, and Space Traffic Management. The President’s budget request provides for $5 million for the Tech Center in FY 2012, which would support about 50 people, although additional employees could be added in future years if needed. We’ve learned that there is tremendous value to having our engineers in close proximity to the operations, rather than sitting in a cubicle inside the beltway in Washington, so that we can be more familiar with both the launch operator and the hardware and can observe firsthand both the successes and the anomalies that are a part of the business of launching rockets.

So that’s what we’ve been up to. It’s a busy time, and an exciting time. And we’re looking forward to working with all of you as together we write a new chapter in suborbital space travel.

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