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”.