New Zimmerman op-ed: NASA’s safety bureaucracy sabotaging manned space


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The website American Greatness has now published a new op-ed I have written that describes how the bureaucracy at NASA is acting to sabotage commercial space, even as it ignores far more significant safety issues with SLS and Orion.

I was prompted to write the op-ed after reading the reports in the past few weeks by NASA’s safety panel and the GAO, both of which clearly favored NASA’s bloated projects.

What both reports actually demonstrate is that the bureaucrats in Washington have very little interest in safety, but instead are more focused on putting their thumbs on the scale in order specifically to harm these private efforts—especially SpaceX’s. One report in particular, by NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), was especially hostile to these private efforts, even as it remained completely unconcerned about similar but far worse safety issues that exist with NASA’s government-built and competing SLS and Orion programs.

Both reports also illustrated starkly the complete lack of understanding that the Washington community has for the nature of exploration, the very task that NASA was founded to spearhead. The result is a bureaucratic culture that makes the manned exploration of space by the United States practically impossible.

If things do not change, expect this country to be bypassed in the coming decades by the rest of the world as the solar system is colonized and settled.

Check it out.

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13 comments

  • Steve

    Excellent piece, Robert. My initial response is, “Ouch.” But it hits the nail squarely on the head.

    A coworker and I often talk space, and SLS is a frequent punching bag. He joked recently that SLS will get to orbit some day, on top of a BFR.

    I look at the development hell SLS has been in and am amazed. It’s supposed to be reusing shuttle technology, but is it really? Sure, the initial flights will reuse SMEs, but they’ve been upgraded. The SRBs have an additional segment. But that hasn’t sped up development.

    I know space is dangerous. We all know that all too well. Maybe NASA is so paranoid of another accident that they’re just pushing the goal so far into the future that no one there can be held responsible for another one. Meanwhile, as you said, we go nowhere and the rest of the world goes to the Moon and elsewhere.

  • Localfluff

    You shouldn’t miss an opportunity to hit the Gateway in nowhere. Lunar orbit means there is no evacuation plan. Astronaut time in space will be reduced by 95% from the ISS level, while the risk to life multiplies. And for no reason what so ever. Everything that can be done in Lunar orbit can be done in LEO much safer, cheaper and at a many times larger scale. Even when everything works perfectly for NASA, they fail by design. In ten years NASA won’t be doing any human spaceflight anymore. They kind of tried, but it is too hard for them.

  • Diane Wilson

    As I’ve read between the lines, ASAP can’t block the demonstration flights, including the crewed flights. So if they refuse to certify, how hard would it be for SpaceX (and perhaps Boeing) to just ignore ASAP and say fine, we’re flying anyway. You want to buy seats from us instead of the Russians? Fine; we’ll sell for 10% less. Pay up or abandon ISS.

    It’s not just that ASAP ignores issues with SLS; they have no say in whether astronauts fly on Soyuz, in spite of serious known issues with Russian rockets.

    Given how much Trump likes to “get things done” and how much frustration he’s had with Washington bureaucracy and with Congress, kicking ASAP to the curb might be a well-earned, high visibility slap at big government.

  • wodun

    Steve
    January 31, 2018 at 10:55 pm

    A coworker and I often talk space, and SLS is a frequent punching bag. He joked recently that SLS will get to orbit some day, on top of a BFR.

    The tanks could make a great wet workshop.

    Localfluff
    February 1, 2018 at 6:17 am

    You shouldn’t miss an opportunity to hit the Gateway in nowhere. Lunar orbit means there is no evacuation plan. Astronaut time in space will be reduced by 95% from the ISS level, while the risk to life multiplies. And for no reason what so ever. Everything that can be done in Lunar orbit can be done in LEO much safer, cheaper and at a many times larger scale.

    Isn’t the DSG supposed to support lunar missions? It isn’t a destination in and of itself is it? Lunar missions could be staged in LEO too though.

    I’d like to see ISS replaced by several privately run stations and that if there is a DSG, that is is constructed following the lessons learned in the COTS programs.

  • wodun

    This was a great op-ed and exactly what is needed to counter all of the misinformation out there about NASA and the space industry. We need more of this on sites that conservatives read.

  • >As I’ve read between the lines, ASAP can’t block the demonstration flights, including the crewed flights. So if they refuse to certify, how hard would it be for SpaceX (and perhaps Boeing) to just ignore ASAP and say fine, we’re flying anyway. You want to buy seats from us instead of the Russians? Fine; we’ll sell for 10% less. Pay up or abandon ISS.

    No, they can’t just do that. It wouldn’t be SpaceX and Boeing ignoring ASAP, it would be NASA program managers who would have to do that.

  • Diane Wilson

    >>As I’ve read between the lines, ASAP can’t block the demonstration flights, including the crewed flights. So if they refuse to certify, how hard would it be for SpaceX (and perhaps Boeing) to just ignore ASAP and say fine, we’re flying anyway. You want to buy seats from us instead of the Russians? Fine; we’ll sell for 10% less. Pay up or abandon ISS.

    >No, they can’t just do that. It wouldn’t be SpaceX and Boeing ignoring ASAP, it would be NASA program managers who would have to do that.

    Point being that it would put NASA and ASAP in a very tight spot. If SpaceX and Boeing have successful crewed demonstration flights, and NASA refuses to use them, it could be a rather unpopular decision. Boeing might toe the line because they have more to lose with NASA, but SpaceX has options such as selling tourism, and upgrading Boca Chica for crewed flights. ASAP’s requirements are excessive and unreasonable, and there is no spaceflight program in the world that can meet them.

  • Edward

    From the essay: “ The subsequent investigation revealed that the cause of the explosion was the failure of a helium tank within the rocket’s first stage oxygen tank.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the problem was in the second stage, not the first stage?

    Diane Wilson asked: “how hard would it be for SpaceX (and perhaps Boeing) to just ignore ASAP and say fine, we’re flying anyway

    The FAA has a class of aircraft called “experimental.” This allows for uncertified airplanes to fly, and this is how most or all of Scaled Composites’ homebuilt kit airplanes are classified, but I doubt that a pilot can take paying passengers on such a plane. Perhaps this extends to rockets, but that paying-customer restriction may get in the way.
    https://www.faa.gov/aircraft/air_cert/airworthiness_certification/sp_awcert/experiment/

    SpaceX and Boeing may have difficulty flying to any NASA destination, because ASAP is a NASA panel; as D. Messier noted, NASA would have to authorize any deviation from its own panel’s recommendation, and they may have difficulty in doing that.

    If SpaceX and Boeing can get FAA licensing, then they could fly to other destinations, such as Axiom, Bigelow, or Ixion space habitats, when they eventually go into orbit. But that may be a big “if,” depending upon FAA’s willingness to license an uncertified manned spacecraft for commercial use.

    Localfluff wrote: “Everything that can be done in Lunar orbit can be done in LEO much safer

    Except for landing on the Moon, as wodun noted, and radiation shielding experiments. Probably other experiments that we are not thinking of, right now. As with the Space Shuttle and ISS, we will learn more about operating in space and about space logistics. If we are too afraid to put a space station in a CisLunar orbit, then how are we ever going to work up the courage or learn the ability to travel to Mars safely?

    On the other hand, the way NASA ends up doing large projects, the Deep Space Gateway (DSG) could end up being another expensive jobs program boondoggle. Even with Apollo, the politicians bragged that it employed 400,000 Americans, and ever since then Congress seems to have thought of NASA more as a jobs program than a space program. Since Congress funds NASA, they are controlled by Congress’s leash.

    The rest of us thought of NASA as a space program, and when we became disappointed that NASA was not taking us farther into the solar system, We the People risked fortunes to start up new commercial space companies, boldly created X-Prizes, and enthusiastically cheered those bold risk takers for their courage, fortitude, and tenacity.

    Now these intrepid entrepreneurs have another obstacle to overcome. A swamp has developed within NASA’s management, and it needs to be drained in order for NASA to help America get anywhere.

  • Diane Wilson

    ASAP is an advisory panel within NASA; they can certainly be overruled. If they continue to be obstructionist, even to the point of blocking the only option to get astronauts to ISS, there will certainly be pressure to overrule them. They may be part of the swamp at NASA, but I don’t think they have a constituency elsewhere, even to the extent that SLS does.

    I doubt that ASAP can block FAA certification. Crewed Dragon and Starliner will have a better safety and testing record to point to than Virgin Galactic or New Shepard; the only difference is that the latter two aren’t planning to go to ISS. But they are all planning on crewed flights this year.

    SpaceX and Boeing have a lot invested in their programs, and there are certainly a lot of jobs on the line as well. I expect that both would push back if ASAP really becomes a block. They would have backing from the White House and from a large part of Congress.

  • Edward: I was referring to the September 2016 launchpad explosion, not the launch failure that occurred on the way to orbit the previous year.

  • D. Messier

    Both catastrophic F9 failures originated in second stage.

  • D. Messier: Really? I stand corrected.

  • Mitch S

    http://spacenews.com/spacex-narrows-down-cause-of-falcon-9-pad-explosion/

    1:11 in this video:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BgJEXQkjNQ&t=183s

    While rocket engineers have been doing it for decades, the challenges of handling super-cold fluids on a vehicle designed to be as light weight as possible and subject to considerable vibration, must be formidable.

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