"Headlines from the Future"
Dr. George C. Nield, Buffalo, NY
November 10, 2012

Space Vision 2012 Conference


Good afternoon everyone.

I'd like to start my remarks today with a prediction. Sometime in the next 10 years or so, we are going to wake up one morning and open up the Washington Post, the New York Times, or whatever website we use to keep track of the news on our iPad or smartphone, and all of a sudden, we are going to be feeling stunned, and heartbroken, and confused, and a variety of other very powerful emotions. Because the headlines are going to say something along the lines of:

Lost in Space!

Astronauts Perish During Routine Trip to Space Station

Program on Hold As Engineers Scramble to Determine Likely Cause

Now, believe me, I am not looking forward to that happening, but I think it is extremely likely. Why do I say that? Because space transportation, like all other modes of transportation, involves risk. In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, 547 people lost their lives in aviation accidents, most of which involved general aviation aircraft. Accidents related to trains and railroad systems killed 695 people. Recreational boating claimed the lives of 736 participants. And on our nation's highways, we experienced 33,868 fatalities involving cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles. So I don't think it is very realistic to assume that those of us in the space transportation business will be able to eliminate accidents completely, no matter how much emphasis we place upon safety and mission assurance.

So what is going to happen after that accident occurs? Well, if we assume that it involves a space vehicle that is owned by the federal government, or if it is being used pursuant to a contract with the federal government, then, according to Public Law 109-155, the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, the President will be required to establish an independent, nonpartisan Commission to investigate the accident, determine the cause, identify all of the contributing factors, and make recommendations for corrective actions. Sounds good, right? Well, maybe. Or maybe not. Our experience with the last two Commissions that were called upon to investigate the Challenger and Columbia accidents was that the Shuttle ended up being grounded for about two and a half years in each case, before NASA was allowed to resume operations. Could we have identified and fixed the problem in less time if we hadn't had those Commissions and all of the extra scrutiny that they entailed? It's hard to know for sure, but I think we probably could have.

Given the current structure of the Commercial Crew program, under which private industry is being called upon to develop systems to take our nation's astronauts to and from the International Space Station, there is a lot of debate about whether industry is capable of building vehicles that are safe enough to transport NASA astronauts. Certainly, NASA has a tremendous amount of expertise and experience, with more than 50 years of practice in sending people into space. Unfortunately, the government's safety record isn't all that great. As you know, during the 135 missions of the Space Shuttle, we had two fatal accidents, resulting in the loss of 14 crew members.

Perhaps even more important though, is the rather limited progress that we have made, in opening up space to the business community and to the general public. In the 50 years since Alan Shepard became the first American in space, we have had some very impressive accomplishments: the Apollo moon landings, the launch and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, and the construction and operation of the International Space Station among them. But only just over 500 people worldwide have had the opportunity to personally experience spaceflight. Fifty years after the Wright brothers first took to the air, we had seen barnstormers putting on airshows and giving rides to interested onlookers, the airmail system had become a reality, Charles Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic, and air transportation had become widely available to the general public. In fact, by 1953, there were 6,237 airports in the U.S., 88,545 civil aircraft, 580,574 licensed pilots, and 24,668,950 revenue passengers taking to the air every year.

Suppose instead, that starting with the Wright brothers, every aircraft had been designed strictly in accordance with government specifications, every aircraft had been built under a cost-plus government contract, every pilot and copilot had been a government employee, every airplane flight had been primarily in support of a government mission, and every passenger had been specially selected and trained by the federal government. Do you think there is any possibility that aviation would look like it does today? I sure don't!

That's why I am so excited about NASA's Commercial Crew program. It offers an opportunity to take advantage of the innovation and creativity of American industry, in a way that has the potential to be mutually beneficial for both the companies involved and for the government. In fact, if it can achieve its stated goals of the development of safe, reliable, and cost effective transportation to low Earth orbit, it could enable a significant increase in the opportunity that the general public has to get into space themselves.

So those of us at the FAA are working very hard with our NASA partners to try and make this program successful. Last June, NASA and the FAA signed an agreement, spelling out how we plan to cooperate on commercial human spaceflights to the International Space Station. Companies will be required to get an FAA license for those operations to ensure public safety, while NASA will retain responsibility for the safety of its astronauts, and for mission assurance.

So what do you think will happen if there is an accident, either as part of the Commercial Crew program, or perhaps during one of the flights of the Space Launch System and Orion? Is it mandatory that we have a 2-1/2 year stand down while we undertake a thorough search for someone to hold responsible for the tragedy, and while we identify all of the changes we need to make so that we can guarantee that we will never have an accident again? I don't think it has to be that way. In fact, I'd like to offer five recommendations for your consideration, that are intended to help us to be more tolerant of the accidents that do occur, and that may allow us to find the problem, fix it, and get back to flying as soon as we can.

First, we need to do away with the requirement for a Presidential Commission following accidents that occur during flights conducted under government contract. Although well-intentioned, such a requirement is not only not helpful, it is counterproductive. The threat of a Congressional hearing, and/or extra "help" from elected officials looking over the shoulders of our technical experts is likely to discourage the use of non-traditional design features or operational approaches, even if those are the kinds of things we need to be looking at to achieve significantly improved levels of safety and reliability.

Second, we need to do a better job of helping our senior political leadership, the news media, and the general public, to understand the risks involved in launching rockets. As Congress itself pointed out in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, "spaceflight is inherently risky." It should not be a shock when things occasionally go wrong, or when new technologies do not always perform in the expected ways.

Third, those of us both in government and in industry have to be more willing to share information about accidents, incidents, close calls, and lessons learned. The tendency we all have is not to talk about the problems we encounter, because it can be embarrassing, or it might give an advantage to a competitor because of the release of what might have been proprietary data. But if we are not willing to share information within the industry, each company is going to end up having to learn those lessons the hard way, with lives potentially being lost needlessly by making the same mistakes over and over again, company by company. That's not the way for our industry to grow and mature.

Fourth, we need to be open to new technologies and new ways of doing business. If instead, we insist on continuing to use the same design approaches and the same operational techniques that we have always used in the past, then we shouldn't be surprised if we end up continuing to have the same kind of safety record that we have always had in the past, with a fatal accident rate of about one in every hundred launches. What we need to be doing is to strive for an accident rate that is about 10,000 times better, more like the rate we currently have with scheduled airliners, with about one fatal accident for every million flights. One great way to do that would be through support for our Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation, which involves students and professors from nine different universities around the country working on problems that are of interest to both government and to industry.

And finally, the government needs to do all we can to enable the development of multiple, independent systems capable of taking people to low Earth orbit. Competition not only helps to keep costs down, but in the event of an accident, or a complex problem that is uncovered during pre-launch testing, rather than waiting out a lengthy grounding, like we did with the Shuttle, we can just use a different rocket or a different spacecraft to get our astronauts back and forth to orbit.

So those are some of my thoughts on Commercial Crew from an FAA perspective. Spaceflight will never be truly routine, but the more we can encourage regular and frequent launches, and the more tolerant we can be of the inevitable problems that we will encounter, the more we are going to learn, and the more rapidly we are going to be able to achieve safe, reliable, and cost effective space transportation. I look forward to your questions.

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