When the gates are all down, and the lights are all flashing, and the whistle is screaming in vain,
You can’t blame the wreck on the train, no, you can’t blame the wreck on the train
The 1987 hit written by Terri Sharp and performed by Don McLean is a plea to a friend in a bad relationship who just doesn’t see what is about to happen.
Commercial Human Spaceflight is poised to enter a bad relationship and I wonder why everyone is so blind they cannot see what is about to happen.
And I’m not talking about the Debt Commission or the new Republican House majority, either.
This has to do with NASA and the way the agency works, really works, away from NASA HQ, out in the field centers, with the rank and file engineer.
For almost fifty years, NASA has been contracting with large aerospace firms to build human spacecraft and their launch vehicles. For that entire time, NASA has been firmly in charge and the contractors, with their cost-plus contracts, have found it lucrative to play the game. From time to time there has been an accident, incident, close call, or anomaly. As with all good government bureaucracies, NASA believes that improved processes (read: increased bureaucracy) is the answer to preventing future problems. So NASA writes longer and longer specifications and requirements, and demands more and more documentation and proof. Somewhere along the line, we have crossed over the optimum point to ensure safety and just added cost and delay.
Now we have a move to acquire transportation to low earth orbit from commercial firms. Not only may this initiative save the taxpayers money, but a new industry may be established. The promoters of this idea liken it to the government contracts for air mail service in the 1920’s which mythically enabled a successful and profitable airline industry. We shall see if this is an appropriate analogy or not, but in the meantime, a huge cultural divide is poised to kill the initiative in its infancy. Not intentionally, not with malice, no no, but with the best of intentions.
When Frank Bauer and I proposed a new model of doing business to the agency leaders, we patterned it on the NASA Launch Services organization which acquires expendable launch vehicles for scientific satellites. NLS has much less oversight and far fewer requirements than usual NASA programs because the providers have a proven track record of success launching rockets for the DoD or for commercial users. This model appeared to us to be the way to allow commercial entities to provide safe but much more cost effective space flight transportation.
Now NASA has released a draft (dated Oct. 8, 2010) of its requirements CCT-REQ-1130 ISS Crew Transportation and Services Requirements. I’d like for you to read it but it is behind NASA’s IT firewall and you must have an ID and password to access it. I have read it and I’m disappointed. The document runs a mind-numbing 260 pages of densely spaced requirements. Most disappointing, on pages 7 to 11 is a table of 74 additional requirements documents which must be followed, in whole or in part. Taken all together, there are thousands of requirement statements referenced in this document. And for every one NASA will require a potential commercial space flight provider to document, prove, and verify with massive amounts of paperwork and/or electronic forms. This, folks is the old way of doing business. This is one of the major reasons why spaceflight is as costly as it is.
NASA at its highest leadership level has committed to try to allow commercial space flight providers a great deal of flexibility and cost control. There are ways to do this which will not compromise safety in design or operation. But having NASA civil servants as the arbiters of whether or not thousands of requirements have been satisfied is not the way to accomplish neither safety nor cost efficiency.
So whether Commercial Space Flight gets $6 billion or $3 billion or $50 million, the entire effort is on the way to a train wreck.
NASA must change or this effort will fail. I am reminded that the US Military’s requirements for its first airplane ran 2 and ½ pages; and the requirements for the NASA’s Gemini capsule ran about two dozen pages. Simple, straightforward requirements and the flexibility to use good industry based standards could allow commercial space flight to be as successful as those programs or the NASA Launch Services program. But we are not on that path.
Folks, the gates are down, the lights are flashing, the whistle is blowing – don’t be surprised if the signals are ignored that there will be a wreck.