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Killing both commercial space and American astronauts

This all reeks of politics: A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday says that NASA it should not permit Boeing and SpaceX to fly humans on their capsules and rockets until they fix certain issues and test both repeatedly on unmanned flights before the first manned flights to ISS.

This GAO report was mandated by Congress, and it requires NASA to certify that both Boeing and SpaceX have met NASA’s requirements before allowing those first manned flights. While the technical issues outlined in the report — to which NASA concurs — might be of concern, my overall impression in reading the report, combined with yesterday’s announcement by NASA that they are seriously considering flying humans on SLS’s first test flight, is that this process is actually designed to put obstacles in front of Boeing and SpaceX so as to slow their progress and allow SLS to launch first with humans aboard.

For example, the report lists three main problems with the commercial manned effort. First there is the Russian engine on the Atlas 5. From the report itself [pdf]:

[T]he Commercial Crew Program is tracking a risk about having the data it needs to certify Boeing’s launch vehicle, ULA’s Atlas V, for manned spaceflight. The Atlas V’s first stage is powered by the Russian-built ULA-procured RD-180 engine, which has previously been certified to launch national security and science spacecraft but not humans. ULA and Commercial Crew Program officials have been working to get access to data about the engine design, so that they can verify and validate that it meets the program’s human certification requirements. The program and Boeing report that access to the data is highly restricted by agreements between the U.S. and Russian governments. As an alternative, the program has stated that it is considering whether to certify the engine based on available data, but program officials believe doing so would be a high risk for the program. Boeing officials told us that they do not view this as a safety risk because NASA will not certify the engines without reviewing the data it needs. [emphasis mine]

The Atlas 5 with its Russian engine has been one of the most reliable rockets in the world. To not man-rate it because NASA doesn’t have access to all “data about the engine design” is absurd. The restrictions exist because the Russians are protecting their proprietary designs from their competition, a completely reasonable thing for them to do. The engine however has been flown now for almost two decades safely, so to block the approval now for these reasons can only be because these NASA bureaucrats are either being overally bureaucratic or because they oppose the commercial program.

Second we have the issue with Boeing’s parachutes. From the report:

In March 2016, Boeing modified its previously approved parachute test plan by replacing six drop tests, which simulate select forces—for example, mass—on the parachute system for one full-scale test event, which simulates all aspects of a parachute system. Through discussions with the program, Boeing has increased the number of full-scale test events to five, with an option for two additional tests if deemed necessary. The program is in the process of reviewing the new test plan to determine if it will generate enough data for the program to evaluate the system. Regardless of whether the program approves Boeing’s new parachute test plan, program officials told us that they plan to gather additional data on the performance and reliability of both contractors’ parachute systems. NASA has several contractual options available to mitigate this risk, if needed. For example, NASA could choose to add additional analyses or parachute tests to the contract.

In other words, NASA doesn’t like the parachute testing plan put forth by Boeing, and has been forcing the company to add tests it initially did not think it needed to do. While the additional testing might make sense, I smell politics here. The use of parachutes for landing spacecraft is well developed engineering. Boeing as a company has lots of experience doing it. For NASA to demand these additional tests, thus delaying the program significantly, seems very fishy to me.

Finally, there are the various problems NASA has with SpaceX’s development and design program. The quote below from the report is long, but worth reading carefully and in its entirety.

The Commercial Crew Program’s top programmatic and safety risks for SpaceX are, in part, related to ongoing launch vehicle design and development efforts. Prior to SpaceX’s September 2016 loss of a Falcon 9 during pre-launch operations, the program was tracking several risks related to SpaceX’s launch vehicle. SpaceX has identified five major block upgrades to its Falcon 9 launch vehicle. SpaceX officials told us that they have flown the first three block upgrades and are on track to implement the fourth and fifth block upgrades in 2017. Among other things, the updated design includes upgrades to the engines and avionics. The program is tracking a risk that there may not be enough time for SpaceX to implement these changes and get them approved prior to the first uncrewed flight test in November 2017. This test flight is a key activity to demonstrate how SpaceX’s system meets the program’s requirements. SpaceX needs to have a stable design to support certification.

In addition to planned design changes, there could be unplanned design changes for the Falcon 9. During qualification testing in 2015, SpaceX identified cracks in the turbines of its engine. Additional cracks were later identified. Program officials told us that they have informed SpaceX that the cracks are an unacceptable risk for human spaceflight. SpaceX officials told us that they are working closely with NASA to eliminate these cracks in order to meet NASA’s stringent targets for human rating. Specifically, SpaceX has made design changes that, according to its officials, did not result in any cracking during initial life testing.

Finally, both the program and a NASA advisory group consider SpaceX’s plan to fuel the launch vehicle after the astronauts are on board the spacecraft to be a potential safety risk. SpaceX’s perspective is that this operation may be a lower risk to the crew; NASA and SpaceX’s risk evaluation is ongoing. NASA and SpaceX may also need to re-examine SpaceX’s safety controls related to the fueling process if the investigation of the September 2016 Falcon 9 mishap identifies issues with the fueling of the vehicle.

At the time of our review, SpaceX also had other elements in its design that had not yet been completed and reviewed. SpaceX requested, and the program approved, proposals to split its critical design review into three reviews because portions of its design had not been ready at previous reviews. The critical design review is the time in a project’s life cycle when the integrity of the product’s design and its ability to meet mission requirements are assessed, and it is important that a project’s design is stable enough to warrant continuation with design and fabrication. A stable design can minimize changes prior to fabrication, which can help avoid costly re-engineering and rework effort due to design changes. SpaceX’s final planned design review was held in August 2016; however, the program reported that a number of outstanding areas, primarily related to ground systems, still needed to be reviewed. SpaceX officials told us these areas were reviewed in November 2016. Further, according to SpaceX, these separate reviews were in order to perform review of designs that were completed earlier than anticipated, to allow SpaceX and NASA teams to focus in greater detail on certain systems, and to accommodate design updates driven in part by changes to NASA requirements. [emphasis mine]

While all of the issues raised should certainly be addressed, the issue here appears to me not to be questions of engineering but instead a fundamental philosophical difference between NASA’s and SpaceX’s development approach. NASA, as it usually does, wants to slow-walk development, requiring more reviews and testing, before certifying designs as acceptable. It does not care if this adds cost. In fact, it likes it, as do most government agencies, because it brings more money to the agency.

SpaceX in contrast wants to operate as it has for the past decade, by incorporating design upgrades quickly and then moving forward in order to get things done and save cost. Its focus is affordability, profit, and achievement, not bigger government budgets.

There might be a middle-ground between these two approaches, but my impression here is that NASA is trying to impose its will for political reasons, not safety, in order to make the commercial program as ineffective as SLS/Orion has been. And the proof of this is NASA’s decision this week to consider flying humans on the very first test flight of SLS. If NASA as an agency really cared about safety like it claims in this GAO report, it wouldn’t dream of flying an untested SLS manned. While the GAO report can only point to some specific and somewhat limited issues faced by Boeing and SpaceX, SLS remains completely unknown. Unlike Atlas 5 and Falcon 9, it has not flown once. None of its components have been tested in flight, and to ignore this basic fact and fly it manned the first time is absurd.

No, it appears to me that NASA and certain members of Congress are trying to manipulate things to save SLS. Their problem is that SLS simply stinks. It has cost too much to build, it is taking too long to get built, and it remains an untested design that has a very limited value. Even if this political maneuvering gets SLS up first with people on board, and that flight does not fail, SLS will still stink. Its second flight will still be years away, while the commercial capsules will be able to fly numerous times in the interim, and they will be able to do it for a quarter of the price.

The worst aspect of this political maneuvering is that it is harming the American effort to fly in space, for no good reason, and might very well cause the death of Americans. Instead of getting Americans launched quickly on American-built spacecraft, these political games are forcing us once again to consider depending on the Russians for an additional few more years. Considering the serious corruption and quality control problems revealed recently in Russia’s aerospace industry, we should not feel save launching Americans on their spacecraft. And we certainly shouldn’t feel safe launching them on SLS during that first test flight.

In the end, this appears once again like Challenger and Columbia. Politics and management concerns that have nothing to do with safety are interfering with the work of engineers, and are pointing to another launch failure and further deaths.

And it would be terrible if three years from now we have to read about this problem, after astronauts have died.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


  • ken anthony

    NASA is America’s politburo. Ironically, born in the cold war to demonstrate our superiority to there system (by mimicking it!)

  • wodun

    In other words, NASA doesn’t like the parachute testing plan put forth by Boeing

    Yup, and they blame Boeing for any schedule slip. A week or two ago there was an article going around about the commercial crew delays that cited the parachutes and turbine cracks but it didn’t go into any detail to NASA’s side of slowing things down.

    The NASA driven delays are why it is imperative that SpaceX get its new launch facility up and running. Ideally, they will have other customers for their Dragons and while a NASA stamp of approval will be great for marketing, they wont necessarily need to deal with the hassle with other customers.

  • Edward

    If I understand correctly what is happening, some of the reasons for the development delays are due to NASA changing the conditions as they go. From Robert’s comment: “NASA, as it usually does, wants to slow-walk development, requiring more reviews and testing, before certifying designs as acceptable.

    This has been my experience, too. NASA likes things to be done correctly, but it is also very comfortable making changes mid project, such as changing requirements.

    I once worked on a cryocooler for the ISS, but politics resulted in it being made into an international part of the project, and it was given to the Germans to design and build — a political decision. Then NASA wanted to make a requirements change, but the Germans were adamant that there was a contract to build what they were building and would not accept the change. The Germans did not want to spend the additional money to redesign. NASA was adamant about having the change, so they took it away from the Germans and gave it back to the company I had been working for, but unfortunately I had moved on to another project and another engineer got to restart the project all over again.

    Changing requirements might be fine for a cost plus program, but it invariably results in increased costs (over budget projects) and delays for redesign efforts (schedule slips).

    Changing requirements can be fatal to a fixed price program. There are few funds available to cover the redesign costs or to cover the schedule slip costs. Fixed price programs have come to an end due to mere technical difficulties, as happened with the X-33 (VentureStar precursor) and the DC-X (Delta Clipper) single stage to orbit projects.

    Robert’s earlier post on this topic ( ) links to an article that suggested that the SLS may not be the only possible rocket to use, “But Walker did not say such a mission would necessarily have to use NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion capsule.” However, the alternate rockets are the two rockets under scrutiny.

    Thus, I am in agreement with Robert that there is something untoward going on at NASA, these days.

    The other day, I linked to a video describing NASA’s reaction to the Mars Direct idea from a quarter century ago. Some at NASA liked the idea, but others did not like that their own sections were not required in order to make it happen, so Mars Direct was killed at NASA for political, not practical, reasons, and we didn’t go to Mars, as was shown to be possible. Those people who killed Mars Direct continued to not have any work in pursuit of reaching Mars.

    There may be people at NASA doing the same thing to commercial space for similar reasons.

  • Tom Billings

    “There may be people at NASA doing the same thing to commercial space for similar reasons.”

    NASA has always had Centers that express its NIH and Turf Warrior instincts, from the Apollo program onward. That happened when a NASA Center involved in the Apollo Program decided, pretty much on their own, that the cruise *and* re-entry should be done with one system. This led to rejecting a design that included the Lander, the Re-entry capsule, and a Cruise Module, very much like Soyuz was to have been. IIRC, it was from MDD. The result was massive trouble with too much capsule mass, and significant delays.

    NASA HQ could join the game as well. Max Hunter told me at the 2000 Space and Robotics Conference that in 1979 he was approached by Robert Mueller from NASA HQ at a conference, and asked to participate in the whisper campaign against Space Services Inc. “Max, ya gotta help us, …these amateurs will be blowing up rockets left and right, and making all we’ve done look too risky…” From that moment when he refused, Max never again headed up a design team that got a NASA contract, though he still consulted in 2000, IIRC.

  • Tom Billings

    “This led to rejecting a design that included the Lander, the Re-entry capsule, and a Cruise Module, very much like Soyuz was to have been. IIRC, it was from MDD.”

    I was incorrect. The design was from General Electric.

  • Vladislaw

    ” and certain members of Congress are trying to manipulate things to save SLS.”

    Care to name names and which Party they belong to?

  • Tom Billings

    “” and certain members of Congress are trying to manipulate things to save SLS.”

    Care to name names and which Party they belong to?”

    That would a rather extensive list, given participation by the congressional delegation of Florida (headed by Senator Bill Nelson (D) and every House member local to the the Space Coast), the delegation of Alabama (headed by Senator Richard Shelby(R)), of Illinois (headed by Senator Dick Durbin (D) (the “Senator from Boeing” since Boeing HQ moved to Chicago)) the delegation of Texas (headed by Rep. Lamar Smith(R), and the delegation of Utah (headed by Senator Orrin Hatch(R)), and several other places that have former Shuttle contractors feeding off of either SLS or Orion.

    Every one of them knows their electability is strengthened by being associated with the source of programs totaling nearly $3 billion every year that their political dependents can feed from.

  • Joe From Houston

    You know and I know that the first company to put a human in space wins. The race to be the first company is the big elephant in the room. No one dares saying it out loud in the news media because it is such a big elephant.
    By definition, the big elephant in the room must not be disturbed by someone screaming at it or poking it or they will get squashed by the elephant taking a quick rest.
    Tens of thousands of jobs are at stake. Congressional elections that produce seed money for these companies are at stake. All of these companies and congressional supporters are propped up by NASA. NASA can certainly pull the plug on whomever they choose with a light tug.
    For example. It’s time to pull your child’s tooth. You simply console your child and it only hurts for a split second and then its over. You put the icing on the cake when you explain the space leaves room for their new tooth to grow. The end. A little pain with a happy ending.
    Ironically, the winner eventually becomes the big elephant in the room as history has proven. The company simply raises their price after their competition collapses after the win. This is what the Russians are doing right now, i.e., negotiating the backup plan to spend tens of millions of dollars 3 years in advance for each human launched to the ISS; the other big elephant in the room. The only way a loser of being the first to send humans into space can have any possibility of surviving their collapse is to convert non-astronauts willing to pay $50M for a trip to space. It doesn’t really matter that they don’t get to go to the ISS since there is nothing inside of there worth gazing at for hours on end.
    The interesting fact is there are far more companies that are going to lose this race than win this race that stand a good chance of establishing a true commercial space transportation system serving 1826 billionaires as per Forbes 2015 list and 15 million millionaires all over the world.

  • Tom Billings

    Joe seems to be assuming what Lamar Smith, Richard Shelby, and the rest in Congress assume, that government will dominate Space. The old socialist idea, that a market will inevitably collapse into monopoly, is firmly embedded by decades of a socialist space program. In fact, when government does not reach its hand out to suppress competition, this happens seldom. Of course, that means Lamar, Richard, et al. are left with less clout . So they prevent that when they can.

    ISS is the only destination this instant. In 2020 that will have changed to ISS in addition to 2 separate BA-330 stations, whether in LEO, or at EML-1, or in LLO has not been determined. This may develop separate from government funds, or it may get Trump’s 2020 push behind it. Lamar, Richard, Dick, Bill, and their fellows, have liked being big frogs in a smaller pond. That FH, New Glenn, and other inventions they do not control, will be opening a channel to a very large ocean, makes them very unhappy. My pity is the world’s smallest violin.

  • Edward

    From the Apollo D-2 link of Tom Billings (thanks for the link, Tom):
    The Soviet Union used the General Electric design approach for their Soyuz spacecraft, still in service 45 years later. The NASA Apollo deign was retired after 8 years.

    I think that the difference is that NASA made an effort to advance space technology with reusability. Although, it is notable that the Soviet Union chose to not fix what was, for them, not broken. Their Soyuz, with only incremental improvements, still provides reliable service for the task assigned to it.

    It is a shame that the Shuttle did not work out as intended and is now being replaced with reusable capsules (Orion, Dragon, and CST-100). I am hopeful that Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser soon becomes a standard for the competition to beat.

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