I have come to regret posting my essay on the coming wreck over commercial space flight. There are two reasons why.
First reason is that this has become a vehicle for all sorts of anti-NASA venom. I blame myself for not having the foresight to know that many folks would hijack my thoughts for their own purposes. To those folks who think that there is some sort of cabal at NASA trying to kill commercial space flight by over regulating it, or are trying to preserve their own civil service jobs by building in unnecessary work, I say nuts. Nothing could be further from the truth. The folks who have worked in spaceflight safety all their careers and who built the requirements document under discussion are trying their hardest to build a good system. I just think they need a course adjustment.
Secondly, it has been brought to my attention that some people in Washington are using my criticism to say that the nation should not fund commercial space flight development. Sigh. My old boss Bill Gerstenmaier always counseled me to be very careful of what I said or wrote because it could be used by political forces against us in ways that we could not imagine. I was never very good at keeping my mouth shut, and diplomacy is not my best skill, so I knew it was time to retire when the agency wanted to move me to Washington.
Neither of these are the effect I intended when sharing my thoughts with you.
Finally, several of my old colleagues have sent word that I misunderstood the requirements document and should go back and read it again. Which I have now done. And I’d like to share my thoughts after that review.
How did I get here? I have been a space cadet all my life; grew up with the glory days of Gemini and Apollo, stayed up late to watch the pictures from the Rangers and Mariner 4. The day I got a job offer from NASA was like a dream come true. I thought we would do this shuttle thing for a couple of years, then build the space station and head on out to the Moon and Mars and all the other interesting places in the solar system. Sigh. Thirty years later, it hasn’t turned out that way.
So when we had a plan to replace the shuttle with a smaller less capable system that would allow us to resume exploration it sounded good. But now we’ve killed that. The replacement is supposed to be commercial human spaceflight. I think that is a stretch, but if that is what the nation wants to do, let’s give it a shot; it might actually work. Now, if we kill that, what? Rely on our great friends the Russians forever? Hmmm.
The last several months at NASA, I was assigned to help develop plans for the commercial human spaceflight program. It seemed like it might work, but it would require a huge change in the way NASA does business if we were not to kill it. That was my message going out the door last July. When I retired, it was apparent that I would quickly become bored puttering around the rose garden. Consulting on a part time basis might allow me to help some of these developing commercial spaceflight companies to succeed. So far a couple of them seem to appreciate my advice. And it looks like a couple of them might just pull this off, but it is not a sure thing and there are plenty of obstacles along the way.
One thing is certain, as another of my old bosses, Bill Parsons, used to say “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, then you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” If commercial human spaceflight is to be cheaper and safer and more flexible and and and, well then it will require different oversight from the government than what we used for shuttle or station or constellation.
NASA put out a second round of CCDev (commercial crew development) opportunities at the end of October. Associated with that announcement, NASA provided a “technical library” of reference documents which applicants could use to develop their proposals. That CCDEV2 technical library requires an ID and password. As a consultant to some of those firms applying for CCDev funding, I got an ID and password and started reading the documents. The first one on the list was the CCT-REQ-1130 which stopped me cold. It was a draft, with a number of TBDs still in it and various dates on the document (Oct 8, Oct 18, etc.). But it was still a huge requirements document in the traditional NASA style.
I thought about it for two weeks, re-reading the document several times. Then I made my post last weekend. I shouldn’t have for the reasons that I listed at the start of this essay.
Now I have re-read it and have some additional thoughts. It is clear that this is a vast scaling down from the requirements that say, Ares-1 and Orion had. And many of the paragraphs say that the specifications and standards can be replaced with alternatives, or with other standards that “meet the intent of” spec such and such. That is good. And to the casual reader that sounds like a big change. Unfortunately, it is not. Having to prove that an alternative standard is just as good as the standard NASA listed is an uphill battle. The adjudicator will be some GS-13 who has lived with one standard his whole career, understands it thoroughly, probably sat on the technical committee that wrote it, and loves it. Proving that his baby is ugly is going to be time consuming, and probably fruitless. I speak from sad experience.
So, what is my recommendation? Simple. Do what the Launch Services Program does: require that providers HAVE standards and follow them – don’t make them pick particular processes or standards, let the flexible, nimble, [your adjective here] commercial firms pick what suits their business best. As long as they have standards and stick to them – that is what we should require.
So the CCT-REQ-1130 is a step in the right direction, but is hardly revolutionary. That revolution is what NASA leadership must show the workers how to accomplish. Leadership that will bridge the gap between policy and the work is what is needed.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A good system can be devised, examples exist. Human spaceflight is important to our nation and to the world. Whether or not commercial firms can actually succeed is still open; but NASA and the FAA must walk a careful tightrope of ensuring safety while not killing the enterprise with over regulation.