There’s been a lot of discussion over the past year or two on a few blogs (this one, Transterrestrial Musings, and also Wayne Hale’s blog, among several others) about the proper level of emphasis on crew safety for commercial crew vehicles. The basic thesis that I and several of these other bloggers have made was that crew safety was only one of several important metrics, and shouldn’t be overemphasized at the expense of all others. The fear being that if “safety is our first priority”, then actually accomplishing the mission, or doing things affordably enough to enable new commercial markets often take the backseat (if not being neglected entirely). The problem is that it’s easy to brush off this argument. After all, we’re talking about human lives here. So what if it takes an extra billion or two, and adds 2-3 years to the development time, and ultimately costs so much that the resulting vehicles are only affordable for NASA, so long as we reduce the risk to our brave astronauts who’ll be flying on these risky commercial vehicles?
I had an interesting thought experiment that I think puts this line of thinking in a different perspective.
One of the most promising applications I’ve seen for microgravity research on the station is the development of vaccines. Apparently some infectious diseases (I think mostly bacterial ones) behave very different in microgravity–they grow much faster. This increase in virulence combined with turning off some of the confounding factors supposedly enables researchers to more quickly isolate the cell receptors, genes and such that govern the spread of the disease, allowing researchers to craft vaccines that have fewer negative side effects, are more effective, and in theory can make it through clinical testing and to market faster than terrestrial-developed counterparts. At least that’s the theory as I understand it, in semi-layman’s terms. Two specific diseases are currently being worked on by NASA and commercial firms like Astrogenetix are Salmonella and MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus). The theory is that a MRSA vaccine developed on the station will be more effective than a terrestrial version, and will have fewer negative side effects.
So here’s the thought experiment. Right now, according to a little googling, MRSA kills about 19,000 Americans per year. As I understand it, there are a few terrestrially developed antibiotics and vaccines in the works, but say that a microgravity developed MRSA vaccine was effective 10% more often (ie that if say the terrestrial versions could save someone’s life 50% of the time, the microgravity-developed vaccine could save someone’s life 60% of the time). That would equate to ~1900 lives saved per year, 158 lives saved per month, or approximately 5 lives saved per day. And mind you, those numbers are only for American lives saved.
Right now the development of vaccines like this are highly dependent on the frequency of up and downmass opportunities on the space station as well as on the crew time available for doing research. From conversations I’ve had with CASIS, the ISS National Lab, and some others at NASA over the past few weeks, those two challenges (delivery/return frequency and crew research availability) are by far the two biggest challenges to effective use of the ISS. While there are several potential solutions to these problems–and in fact, I’m working on some really intriguing ones on the crew research availability side at Altius at the moment–one of the simplest ways to help improve the situation for both of these problems would be for Commercial Crew to enter operational services quicker.
Right now other than very tiny payloads on Soyuz, Dragon is the only way of getting payloads back from the station, and even when Elon’s team gets up to full speed, that’s only three opportunities per year. Any of the commercial crew vehicles being developed would add substantially not just to total downmass “tonnage” but more importantly to the frequency of downmass opportunities, increasing that number to potentially 5-6 times per year.
Additionally once commercial crew vehicles are flying, their lifeboat capability (and I agree with Rand’s take on how necessary that really is) will enable adding an extra crew-person to the ISS, bringing it to a total of seven crewmembers, with four of them on the US side. Right now between the three crewmembers on the ISS, we’re only getting about 1800-1900 man-hours of research work done per year on the station, with an average of about 35hrs per week total between the three of them. Just adding an additional crew member on the USOS side would likely double that number, potentially doubling the ROI for the station.
Between these two changes enabled by getting Commercial Crew into operations, experiments like the MRSA vaccine development process can proceed much quicker. As Tom Pickens of Astrogenetix explained at a Space Angels Network event I was presenting at in Houston a bit over a year ago, their development process depends on the ability to do 5-6 launch/process/return iteration cycles during the development of a given vaccine. Adding additional flight opportunities, and making sure that the experiment gets processed while the delivery vehicle is on station so it can make it back on the same vehicle (“Sortie Science” as the National Lab folks are calling it), can both greatly shorten the amount of time it takes to get the vaccine developed and into clinical testing.
While shortening the development cycle has serious positive commercial profitability benefits (a vaccine or design that isn’t completed is like a non-interest bearing checking account with a very high monthly fee that you only get profit from once the product actually hits the market), it has a dramatic value in saved lives in this particular case. Put simply, every day a vaccine like this gets to market sooner means a certain number of people who aren’t going to die painfully and prematurely. In the particular case of a 10% better MRSA vaccine, we’re talking about saving an extra 5 American citizens per day sooner that you get the MRSA vaccine to market.
So what does this have to do with space safety? Pretty simple. If NASA isn’t blowing smoke about the benefits of microgravity research for developing vaccines (and I for one believe them in this case), the delays in Commercial Crew availability due to added safety requirements come with an impressive cost in human lives. Adding an extra year to bump the theoretical reliability of commercial crew from 99% to 99.5% for instance just potentially cost you almost 2000 American lives, just from this one vaccine alone. These are lives that could’ve been saved by allowing a faster, more streamlined commercial crew development process. And by not starving it for funds to pay for heavy-lift rockets without destinations.
Think about that. Just shaving 36 hours off of the availability date of commercial crew could potentially save more lives than would be lost in the worst case Commercial Crew crash. Even if expediting the process, dropping many of the NASA Human Rating requirements, dropping some of the abort tests, and sticking with Space Act Agreements instead of FAR Contracts really meant a massive decrease in actual safety (I don’t think it would) to say a 5% chance of losing a crew on a given flight, over the course of the ISS’s life you would have saved hundreds of times more US lives by taking that course than you would potentially risk in astronaut lives.
Gives you some perspective, doesn’t it?