Commercial space industry meets to set its own safety standards


Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

Because of legal restrictions that prevent the FAA from imposing its own safety regulations on the commercial space industry, the industry itself is forming its own committee to work out its own standards.

At a meeting here Oct. 24, ASTM International, an organization founded in 1898 that develops voluntary consensus standards for a wide range of industries, agreed to move ahead with the creation of a committee that will work on creating such standards for commercial launch vehicles, spacecraft and spaceports. “It will allow industry to use a 110-year-old process to produce consensus standards,” said Oscar Garcia, chairman of the standards working group of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), during a meeting of that working group here Oct. 25. The new committee, he said, “will develop standards and related roadmaps to address activities such as human spaceflight occupant safety standards, spaceports and space traffic management.”

A total of 53 people representing 29 companies and organizations attended that kickoff meeting, said Christine DeJong, director of business development for ASTM International, at the COMSTAC working group meeting. The committee won’t be formally created until after the completion an internal ASTM review process.

This is excellent news. It is far better that the industry voluntarily puts together and imposes its own safety standards than if the federal government imposes those rules. The government can’t possibly know the situation as well as the industry. This will guarantee that those rules will be not only work, but they will be cost effective and will not act to squelch innovation and experimentation.

Share

3 comments

  • wayne

    While this does sound like a hopeful development, and I do fully support private standard-setting organizations, I’m highly leery of the potential for sweetheart cronyism to develop with the State.

    Voluntary Standards have (on occasion) a bad habit of morphing into Administrative State Controls. “Ideas so good, they become mandatory.”
    Highly leery of the interaction between Big Space & Big Government.

    Somebody will get killed in Space, others will cry “why,” investigations will be conducted, people will be sued, “Standards” will come up, Legislation will be drafted, and then we’ll have the Post Office.
    (and I hope I’m wrong.)

  • PeterF

    Big Government can only impose its rules with its own borders. They might try to create “mandatory” rules, but any company can side step them by leaving their jurisdiction. I bet Costa Rica would welcome a company with open arms and massive tax breaks if they are willing to build a launch complex. There are a LOT of other countries closer to the equator than the US.

    If they are able to set the standards before the first big loss of life disaster they will be able to protect the industry from overzealous risk-averse vote pandering politicians. This is a capitalism solution to a foreseeable problem that doesn’t need enforcement. Passengers won’t risk their lives on a carrier that doesn’t meet the standards and like a company whose products don’t meet the Underwriters Laboratory standards they will lose market share and eventually go out of business.

  • Edward

    PeterF,
    You bring up interesting thoughts. However, I do not think that a company can get around governmental laws, rules, and regulations by operating in another jurisdiction. People and companies are still subject to the laws of the US while in or operating in other countries. For instance, for a US company operating in a country where bribery is expected, the company is still punishable by the US government if a bribe is made.

    Shortly after deregulation, the US airline industry realized a developing problem with passenger confidence. If the rate of flights continued to grow at the then-current rate and the rate of fatal accidents remained the same, then airline accidents would make headlines almost every week. The airline industry thought that this was unacceptable, and put a lot of effort into aircraft design, maintenance, and operation in order to reduce the rate and number of fatal accidents.

    Bill Whittle noticed this and is philosophical about it in this seven-minute video:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXbdJ3kyVyU

    Whittle notes that there hasn’t been a single fatality on a major US jetliner on American soil since November 12, 2001. Although a foreign airline crashed in San Francisco three years ago, the US airlines have kept up this record for what is now almost fifteen years.

    This is the value of the NTSB investigations, as well as of the thousands of people around the country who continue to work on making air travel even safer. For instance, one scientist at NASA takes anonymous pilot reports of close calls in order to figure out how to avoid the accidents that almost happened in those cases.

    Whittle noted that it took a lot of airplane accidents for us to learn from our mistakes, and he believes that it will take additional accidents for us to learn how to be safe in the new environment of spaceflight, too.

    I think wayne and Whittle are right. There will be passenger fatalities in spaceflights. What matters most is what the public reaction will be. Will we overreact and make it too difficult to get into space, or will we do as we did for the airlines, over the past three decades, and let the manufacturers and operators figure out the safe ways to fly to, in, and from space?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *