Random Thought: Is Commercial Crew Having to be “More Catholic Than the Pope”?

I realized I already made several of my points about the overemphasis of “safety” for NASA’s commercial crew program back in March, but I heard a recent line that helped me better understand what may be driving this. This probably isn’t that brilliant of an observation, but it helped me.

I was talking with a friend who was doing some work with an FFRDC (Federally Funded Research And Development Center–labs like Los Alamos National Lab, NASA JPL, Lawrence Livermore, etc. that get funding from the government but are run by a private university or institution on a non-profit basis). He pointed out that by not being a traditional government lab or center, they were often under more scrutiny for contracting rules compliance than a more traditional government center would be. As he put it, they had to be “more Catholic than the Pope”, because while a normal government-run center or lab might be able to waive or ignore some silly rules and get away with it, the government likes throwing the book at FFRDCs, because they’re sort of outsiders.

I wonder if this is the same dynamic driving the obsession with safety for NASA’s commercial crew program. As an “outsider” program that Congress naturally views with distrust (and which some Congress-members would probably be all too pleased if it failed), I think NASA may be overcompensating, and quite possibly trying to make commercial companies comply with some rules that NASA likely would’ve just sought waivers for internally.

A related thought that is worth considering is that NASA has never built or flown a manned launch vehicle with a reliability better than 1:100. Sure, they had supercomputer models to “prove” that Ares-I was going to have a 1:2105.3123 safety level, but the only manned vehicle they ever flew to orbit more than a dozen times was Shuttle, and it’s demonstrated reliability was far less than 1:100. So the question is, how does NASA know how to actually design and operate vehicles on the 1:1000 level they expect out of commercial crew competitors? I’m sure they may have some excellent lessons learned and insights into things that are probably worth listening to and evaluating. But the reality is that there’s nobody on this planet that knows for sure how to develop a vehicle much safer than Soyuz or Shuttle. We have a lot of bright people who think they know how to do so safer, and are willing to write specifications and requirements based on that belief, but in some ways that’s like writing a recipe for a dish that’s never been baked before. Even if commercial crew follows the recipe to the T, do we really know we’re actually going to get a good result?

So by forcing commercial crew to adhere to tons of unproven specifications, and referenced specifications, and specifications referenced by referenced specifications, do we actually know if we’ll be making them any safer? Not really. We do know we’ll be driving up the procurement cost, delaying when they can get to market, and making them far less economically competitive.

But at least nobody will be able to question their “piety”.

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6 Responses to Random Thought: Is Commercial Crew Having to be “More Catholic Than the Pope”?

  1. DougSpace says:

    This is why I would like to see the first Americans returning to the Moon to be employees of a company contracted by NASA to service telerobots rather than actual NASA employees. Let the liability be between the employees and their company rather than between the company and NASA.

  2. Dave Huntsman says:

    Your assessment is valid.

    Other things add in to it…… there are still folks in NASA who, like Senator Hutchinson, don’t believe in the subject at all; and piling on requirements to them is ‘free’.

    But then again, the reliability standard we in NASA set on shuttle is acknowledged by all as not safe and reliable enough: the commercial folks really do have to do better than NASA in those areas, and they’ve got to cost less while doing it. They need to be more robust than NASA and cheaper, or it’s not worth doing.

    That’s why I think the approaches of SpaceX (and Virgin and XCOR, who will start with suborbital and then go to orbital) are so important, because they emphasize flight rate, something NASA can’t drive up on its own due to bureaucratic and other reasons, and neither will the ULA monopoly. And the emphasis on flight rate is what will finally drive the needed safety and reliability.

  3. DougSpace says:

    Dave, totally agree with you. But I for one think it will be fairly easy for the commercial companies to beat the safety record of the Shuttle. The existence of a launch abort system for one will make for a safer system. Being on top of, rather than down on the side of the rocket is another design reason why I think it will be relatively easy for them. But for now, they just need to fly enough cargo missions to reveal any unknown problems. I think they’ll achieve good safety in time. But Russia shows that you can’t sit on your laurels. You have to keep on the quality.

  4. Peterh says:

    In the end, flight rate will help develop reliability. Figuring out in the laboratory of real life what works and what breaks. Crews doing a job regularly and getting good at it, rather than at months long intervals.

  5. mike shupp says:

    What strikes me is some programs get attention, and others don’t. There aren’t going to be many newspaper headlines if a test pilot is killed working on a USAF fighter program, there isn’t going to be a lot of debate on dueling websites, or mention on John Stewart’s TV show, and no one’s likely to suggesting closing the program down. Kill an astronaut doing something comparable and it gets international attention, Congress holds special meetings to investigate, special interest groups pop up to protest the very idea of manned space programs, etc. That’d likely be true even if the “astroanut” were a civilian working on a major NASA contract at a private firm.

    So I suspect that the people at NASA exercising oversight of commercial programs have this at the back of their minds, and it shows up in their dealings with these firms. Which affects everybody’s behavior, regardless of what the statute books say. I don’t see a cure as long as spaceflight is an infrequent and thus newsworthy topic.

  6. Jardinero1 says:

    Cars don’t have reliability levels of one in 1000 and neither do drivers. That doesn’t mean that every auto breakdown is catastrophic unlike most breakdowns in launchers. But the death rate from cars owing to either driver error or mechanical breakdown is about one in 5000 vehicles and that’s with over one hundred years of continuous improvements built in. Thus it’s a bit much to to expect launchers to have a reliability rate of one in 1000.

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