Will commercial spaceflight be safe?

Commercial spaceflight ignites safety argument

Inevitably when commercial spaceflight is the topic, the question of how safe such operations will be will soon follow.  Since there is apparently going to be way more commercial space flight operations in the future the safety topic is a hot one. 

For example at the recent Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference the Federal Aviation Administration Associate Administrator Dr. George Nield took issue with detractors of commercial space flight saying: "Rockets are dangerous. The FAA knows it. The industry knows it. That's why the people involved in commercial spaceflight are dedicated to doing everything possible to make spaceflight as safe as humans can make it." 

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Nield went on to say: "As much as I wish it were, safety is not an absolute. Climbing aboard a rocket carries with it the potential for unfavorable results. So safety must override assumptions, shortcuts and the potentially false and dangerous sense 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 alert, determined to get it right this time, next time, all the time. 

"Even at that high order of readiness, safety does not, nor can it ever, immunize anyone against unforeseen harm. Misfortune will always be an uninvited possibility whenever a rocket launches," he stated. 

Nield noted that the commercial space transportation industry has already amassed an impressive safety record.   "We have been issuing licenses to commercial launch operators for a quarter of a century, with 200 licensed launches now on the books, he said.   

"While it's entirely legitimate to raise questions, it doesn't do America's future in space any good at all to raise fears in what might be interpreted as an effort to undermine an industry that has served the nation well and is now prepared to expand its contribution," Nield stated. 

In order to effectively watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office in December said the Federal Aviation Administration needs to address a number of critical issues, safety concerns being a couple of those challenges, before commercial space operations can truly blast off.  

For example, the GAO said the FAA will need to determine whether its current safety regulations are appropriate for all types of commercial space vehicles, operations, and launch sites.  If the industry begins to expand, as senior FAA officials predict, to 200 to 300 annual launches, a reassessment of the FAA's resources and areas of expertise would be appropriate. Moreover, as NASA-sponsored commercial space launches increase, the FAA's need for regulatory resources and expertise may change, the GOA stated.

For example, the FAA faces challenges in ensuring that it has a sufficient number of staff with the necessary expertise to oversee the safety of commercial space launches and spaceport operations. The GAO said it raised concerns in the past that if the space tourism industry developed rapidly, the FAA's responsibility for licensing reusable launch vehicle missions would greatly expand. The FAA's experience in this area is limited because its launch safety oversight has focused primarily on unmanned launches of satellites into orbit using expendable launch vehicles, the GAO stated.

Many companies are designing and developing space hardware that is being tested for the first time, requiring that FAA have a sufficient level of expertise to provide oversight. The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation has hired 12 aerospace engineers, bringing its total staff to 71 full-time employees. In addition the FAA has established field offices at Edwards Air Force Base and NASA's Johnson Space Center in anticipation of increased commercial space launches, the GAO report noted. 

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