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NASA’s safety panel questions NASA commitment to commercial space stations

We’re here to help you! Not surprisingly, members of NASA’s safety panel have once again expressed doubts about NASA’s ongoing effort to encourage a thriving private, competitive, and efficient commercial space industry, this time questioning the transition from NASA’s government-built space station, ISS, to privately-built and owned space stations, four of which are presently under development.

At a July 21 meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, members said they were concerned that commercial stations whose development is being supported by NASA were unlikely to be ready in time before the ISS is retired at the end of the decade, and that those efforts suffered from insufficient budgets.

Those plans, called Commercial Leo Earth Orbit (LEO) Destinations by NASA, “are on a precarious trajectory to realization on a schedule and within the projected resources needed to maintain a NASA LEO presence,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of the panel. “This is an area of concern for us.”

The panelists also questioned how quickly the stations would be man-rated (claiming NASA was not allocating enough time to do so) as well as whether NASA had enough work for four stations.

For the past decade this safety panel has consistently shown itself to be hostile to the new commercial space companies. It has never seen any safety issues or scheduling problems with NASA’s big SLS rocket. Nor did it notice Boeing’s significant software and valve problems on Starliner. Yet somehow, the work of SpaceX was dangerous (when it was not), and now these new stations, most of which are being built by new space companies, are equally unfit for use.

It is time to shut down this panel. Or at a minimum fire its present members and bring in new blood more willing to look at the entire space industry with a more objective eye.

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9 comments

  • This panel reminds me of how election law is administered in this nation … “established” parties are given preferential treatment over upstarts in terms of the requirements for ballot access.

    They are process-, not results-, oriented. Disruptions of their status quo are highly discouraged by this panel … likely captured by the gravity of Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

  • Ray Van Dune

    I find the logic expressed by the panel more compelling than I expected to, given the other opinions I have heard about it. It doesn’t seem to be anti private sector, only cautioning that NASA needs to spend more aggressively to ensure the private sector can meet national security requirement in addition to their own.

    It is hard to argue that NASA could not more wisely allocate its resources while looking at the money being wasted on SLS, which will come nowhere near supporting a robust level of space exploration. Artemis would be a complete flop as a vehicle to restart lunar exploration, where it not for the fact that SpaceX and others are willing to do the development for a price that NASA cannot seem to manage. One flight a year until the 2030s is a joke.

  • D. Messier

    What are you talking about? The panel has had plenty to say about SLS. I found this with one Google search.

    https://spacepolicyonline.com/news/safety-panel-doubles-down-on-need-for-sls-green-run-test/

    You can probably find a lot more about the panels concerns about SLS and Starliner if you looked. A couple of searches away.

  • Edward

    Considering the lousy funding that Congress supplied for Commercial Crew Program, causing years of delays, it would not be surprising that Commercial LEO Destinations is likewise in danger of being delayed.

    However, the safety panel seems to assume that only NASA will be the sole customer for these space stations.

    Another issue is resources not just for supporting development of the stations but also NASA’s use of them. “It doesn’t have a forecast or a way to guarantee to providers the extent of NASA’s business once a commercial laboratory is available,” Donahue said.

    Yet, the idea of having these commercial destinations is so that there will be orbital laboratory space available for the many additional customers who have not been able to get time on ISS. In addition, customers can come from international corporations, companies, or even governments that desire their own space program. I suspect that just as with the ISS, there still will not be enough orbital lab space available for the multitude of customers.

  • David Eastman

    D. Messier: when the panel expresses concern with SLS, it’s invariably the case that what concerns them is that not enough time or money is involved. Your example above is an excellent example, they wanted any time pressure ignored and more money spent.

    When they turn their focus to SpaceX or other commercial projects, they usually also want more time and money, but not for the commercial entity providing the service, no, they want vastly more NASA time and money for observation, management, and supervision.

    Basically, they never miss an opportunity to delay for more testing and review, and they never miss an opportunity to express distrust that anyone other than the good old boys can do anything correctly without supervision. Even in the face of repeated examples that the opposite seems to be true.

  • Concerned

    I seem to recall even the great Neil Armstrong appeared before Congress expressing doubt about Commercial Crew. It upset Elon Musk so much it almost made him cry. The old just guard isn’t going to go quietly and old habits do die hard.

  • Concerned: The 1960s astronauts were all government workers of one kind or another. They were also military men mostly who had little understanding of business and capitalism. This is why most could not conceive space exploration being done for profit. Thus, most opposed commercial crew, though some did not or held their tongue because even with doubts new space and capitalism suggested an alternative that might do things better.

  • Jeff Wright

    And the likes of Branson and Bezos doesn’t help.
    Musk really is an outlier.

    Cost plus doesn’t scare me as badly as the idea of going with the lowest bidder. I consider NASA underfunded.

    The military men also remember folks like Walker, Ames, Manning…and that is probably why they distrust using more commercial options where you can have even less oversight.

    That having been said….I do think the safety panel has outlived its usefulness.

  • D. Messier

    David:

    Your analysis is wrong. The panel had serious concerns about safety on SLS. It didn’t want the Green Run because it would shuffle more money to the contractors.

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