House Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Spaceflight Safety


The U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space & Aeronautics held a hearing yesterday on the issue of how to ensure the future safety of human flight into space for both commercial and governmental agencies. The hearing was attended by a number of witnesses that represented NASA, one from the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the CEO of a risk-analysis firm, and a former astronaut. The subcommittee was chaired by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

This hearing comes on the tails of the Augustine Commission final report, which examined the future of spaceflight in the U.S. and laid out a “flexible path” plan that includes utilizing private, commercial firms for human transport into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station.

Yesterday’s hearing was meant to help inform members of Congress about the safety concerns presented to manned flights, and what future regulations will be needed if commercial companies start to have a larger role in human spaceflight. The hearing’s charter states as its purpose:

On December 2, 2009 the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics will hold a hearing focused on issues related to ensuring the safety of future human space flight in government and non-government space transportation systems.  The hearing will examine (1) the steps needed to establish confidence in a space transportation system’s ability to transport U.S. and partner astronauts to low Earth orbit and return them to Earth in a safe manner, (2) the issues associated with implementing safety standards and establishing processes for certifying that a space transportation vehicle is safe for human transport, and (3) the roles that training and experience play in enhancing the safety of human space missions.

Witnesses at the hearing included Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance for NASA Bryan O’Connor, Constellation Program Manager Jeff Hanley, Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Council Member John C. Marshall, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation Bretton Alexander, Vice President of Valador, Inc. Dr. Joseph R. Fragola, and former astronaut Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, USAF, who flew in some of the Apollo and Gemini missions.

Each witness gave statements to the panel, all of which is available in .pdf format on the committee’s site. After hearing the testimony of these witnesses, Rep. Giffords said:

“At the end of the day, I am left with the firm conviction that the U.S. government needs to ensure that it always has a safe way to get its astronauts to space and back. As I have said in the past, I welcome the growth of new commercial space capabilities in America and do not see them as competitors with, but rather complementary to the Constellation systems under development. Based on what we’ve heard today, I see no justification for a change in direction on safety-related grounds. Instead, I am very impressed with the steps that have been taken to infuse safety into the Constellation program, and want to encourage their continued efforts to make Ares and Orion as safe as possible.”

Part of the reason for the hearing was to compare the safety of commercial vehicles to the Constellation program for getting astronauts to the International Space Station after the Shuttle program is shut down. Constellation won’t be ready to go until 2015 at the earliest, so the gap of five years could potentially be filled by private contractors.

Of course, you might notice that only one of the members of the witness panel of six represents commercial interests, which has caused some critics – like the Orlando Sentinel – to call the safety hearing a “Pro-Constellation rally.” The Space Politics blog also pointed this lack of representation out.

Though commercial aerospace companies like SpaceX, Masten Space Systems and XCOR weren’t represented directly on the witness panel, they are members of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Bretton Alexander stressed the importance of safety in his statement, and also pointed out that private space companies could take over the majority LEO launches here at home to allow NASA and its partners the resources to go to the Moon (and beyond).

Source: House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics press release