- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The choices before the nation on the future of human space flight are extremely complex; the Augustine Commission hearings this month only reinforce this.

Fundamental considerations about mission, vision, destination, system performance, cost and safety all seem to pull in different directions. To untangle these seemingly conflicting attributes and meet our goal, we should look to the lessons of aviation and space history. History has taught us that the most important attribute to consider is crew or passenger safety. Only the safest system can reap long-term benefits.

The traditions behind aviation accident investigations provide a relevant architecture to help us move forward. Because of the unforgiving nature of aviation accidents, the aviation community has adopted robust methods, procedures and techniques for investigating such accidents. Thanks to the implementation of vital recommendations from prior accident investigations, mistakes and lessons learned from the past have dramatically decreased commercial aviation accident rates over the past 100 years. This accomplishment, however, came at a high price, namely the lives of those who perished.

After both the Challenger and Columbia tragedies, accident boards issued reports citing causes and outlining concrete steps for improving human space travel. As NASA considers the next launch vehicle to send humans into low-Earth orbit, it would be wise to honor those who have lost their lives by incorporating those accident board recommendations. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board report provides useful insight for moving forward because it recounts much of the Challenger accident.

So what can we learn from the investigation about how best to proceed? First and foremost, crew safety is of utmost importance in evaluating shuttle replacements. Specifically, “the design of the system should give overriding priority to crew safety, rather than trade safety against other performance criteria, such as low cost and reusability, or against advance space operation capabilities other than crew transfer.”

The board re-emphasized that “the overriding mission of the replacement system is to move humans safely and reliably into and out of Earth orbit. To demand more would be to fall into the same trap as all previous, unsuccessful, efforts.” The Columbia investigation asserted that crew safety must be “significantly improved over the one designed 40 years earlier, for carrying humans to orbit and enabling their work in space.” The word “significantly” is important. It advocates improving crew safety as much as possible rather than simply settling for a replacement vehicle that is only “safer” than the shuttle.

Finally, the investigation noted that the goal for human space exploration always begins with successfully placing humans in low-Earth orbit. “The United States needs improved access for humans to low-Earth orbit as a foundation for whatever directions the nation’s space program takes in the future.” Regardless of the final space-exploration destinations, safely transferring humans to and from low-Earth orbit is a fundamental requirement.

Ares I was designed from the start with crew safety and mission reliability as key requirements. Multiple studies show that goal was achieved, with Ares I consistently rated tops for safety against any other option by a significant degree. This is no accident. A reduced part count combined with heritage human-space-flight hardware increases crew safety and decreases developmental and programmatic risk. Increased crew safety and mission reliability have the added benefit of reducing overall life-cycle costs. Expenses associated with a reliable human transport are less than for one that suffers intermittent catastrophic failures. That, in turn, facilitates commercialization of human low-Earth orbit transport. This is a rare win-win-win solution.

Though commercial vehicles with a launch abort system may be safer than the shuttle, they still lag behind Ares I safety by a factor of 3 to 5 and do not meet the Columbia investigation’s clear assertion that America should replace the shuttle with a vehicle that is “significantly safer.” Asking start-up companies working to deliver cargo to the International Space Station to take on the task of safely delivering crew to low-Earth orbit is fraught with multiple unknowns, risking significantly increased costs, both monetarily and in human life.

As the Challenger and Columbia tragedies fade from memory, factors other than crew safety begin to weigh on our decision. Unfortunately, as Richard Feynman noted in his Minority Report to the Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry, such factors cannot “fool” nature. His words from 1986 ring true today, as they did then:

“Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the cost and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating cost, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decision for the use of their limited resources. For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

In the proven tradition of aviation safety and to honor those who have given their lives conducting space exploration, the only question to consider is simply, “Which of the options provides the most significant increase in crew safety for traveling to and from low-Earth orbit?” This approach has worked for aviation over the past 100 years; it can work for human space travel over the next 100 years.

Michael Bloomfield is vice president and program manager for constellation systems at ATK Space Systems. Earlier, Mr. Bloomfield, a retired Air Force colonel, had a 12-year career with NASA, where he was chief of the Safety Astronaut Office, deputy director of flight crew operations and a veteran of three shuttle flights.

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