"Lessons from a Tragedy"
Dr. George C. Nield, Colorado Springs, Colorado
April 18, 2012

National Space Symposium


Thanks Leroy, and good afternoon everyone. I flew in on Monday afternoon from Washington, DC, and for the last week or two, I've been surprised to see that one of the biggest items in the newspaper there was not the ongoing Presidential campaign or the failed North Korean rocket launch, but rather, the plethora of stories about the sinking of the Titanic.

It was 100 years ago this week, on April 15, 1912, that the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage, and a few hours later, slipped beneath the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean, resulting in the death of over 1500 passengers and crew members. With that level of loss of life, the event certainly qualifies as one of the deadliest maritime disasters in history.

But something else seems to be going on here that has resulted in countless books, plays, poems, songs, and various works of art, intended to memorialize the ship and those aboard her who were lost at sea. Several movies have been produced, including James Cameron’s 2007 blockbuster hit, which rapidly became the highest grossing film in history. Souvenirs and keepsake items have ranged from candy tins to commemorative plates, and from whiskey jiggers to specially crafted teddy bears in mourning.

There are memorials and monuments that have been set up in Southampton, Liverpool, and Belfast in the United Kingdom; in New York and Washington, DC; and in both Ireland and Australia. In the United States alone, there are Titanic museums in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts; Branson, Missouri; Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; Orlando, Florida; and not to be outdone, a hotel and casino in Las Vegas that features a 22-ton slab of the ship’s hull.

So what’s going on here? Is it just a heartfelt response to the magnitude of the tragedy? Could it be related to the romance, bravery, and chivalry that are so much a part of the narratives surrounding the ship’s fateful voyage? Or was this a reaction to a perception of corporate arrogance, social stratification, and capitalist excess?

Perhaps it’s all of these things, to one degree or another. But I suspect that there is another factor coming into play. It seems to me that the Titanic, in its design and construction, in its operation, and in its tragic loss, was somehow connected to the basic yearnings of the human spirit – for the opportunity to participate in a grand adventure, to travel far from home and everyday routines, to experience the exhilaration of getting close to, and hopefully successfully returning from, a sometimes hostile natural environment, and to observe first hand, the beauty and majesty of both our Earth and our universe.

Come to think of it, those are some of the same yearnings that many of us associate with America’s space program. Most of us here today were in the habit of seeking out a nearby TV screen or computer monitor when it was time for a Space Shuttle launch to carry our government astronauts into orbit. And we would cheer for them and celebrate with them as they bravely represented our nation in space. But when it comes right down to it, traveling to space is something that many of us would like to do ourselves. That’s why it is so exciting to contemplate the next chapter of the human spaceflight story. Whether you call it Personal Spaceflight, or just plain Commercial Space Transportation, it represents a major transformation in how people will travel to space in the future, and in who will get to participate. Of course NASA will always be an important customer for these flights, but if all goes well, they will be just one of many customers.

So as we consider that inspiring future, what lessons can we draw from the story of the Titanic that will help our efforts in space going forward to be safer and more successful? In the months immediately following the accident, investigations were conducted by the U.S. Senate and by the British Board of Trade, and both inquiries reached essentially the same conclusions. It’s important to note that the investigators did not call for all future passenger liners to be designed, built, or operated by the federal government. They did, however, recommend changes in maritime regulations to implement new safety measures, including ensuring that more lifeboats were provided, that lifeboat drills were properly carried out, and that the wireless communications equipment was manned around the clock. In addition, an International Ice Patrol was set up to monitor the presence of icebergs in the North Atlantic, and an International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea was convened in London.

Technical provisions agreed to by the Convention were focused on the establishment of minimum standards for the construction, equipage, and operation of ships, in order to ensure their safety. Specific provisions included the subdivision of passenger ships into watertight compartments, fire protection and detection, the use of lifeboats and lifejackets, and radio communications.

It seems to me that following that same basic philosophy for commercial human spaceflight might be very appropriate. It’s certainly not clear that the government needs to be dictating detailed design requirements for all of our nation’s future launch vehicles and spacecraft. But it might make sense for the FAA, as the regulatory agency responsible for commercial human spaceflight, to work closely with both NASA and the industry in coming up with some top-level safety requirements that would take advantage of the knowledge and experience that we have gained during more than 50 years of human spaceflight.

As it turns out, Congress recently extended the moratorium on the FAA proposing new human spaceflight regulations until October 1, 2015. As a practical matter, because of the intricacies of the federal rulemaking process, that means that final rules on human spaceflight safety will likely not be published until the year 2020 or thereabouts.

However, the companies that are involved in this business are certainly free to start drafting and sharing industry consensus standards, and to participate in the collection of lessons learned and the identification of best practices. To the extent that the aerospace community is able to do those things without compromising proprietary design secrets, I think the entire industry will benefit.

In the current political and budget environment, this is not necessarily a very good time to be a regulator. But those of us in the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation like to think that we are not your typical government bureaucrats. After all, we have a two-fold statutory mission: to ensure public safety during commercial launch and reentry activities, and to encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space transportation. We take both parts of that mission very seriously. So let me close by saying that we are very excited about the progress being made in commercial space transportation, and that we are looking forward to working with both NASA and the industry in taking human spaceflight to a whole new level of accomplishment.

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