OPINION: Human Space Flight Is Challenging

After reading the recent Inspector General’s report on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) management of its program to send commercial crews to the International Space Station, I had one big takeaway – it’s hard to safely fly into space.

That shouldn’t be a trivial observation, but it’s one that the seemingly endless parade of media stories missed in their coverage of the report. It’s difficult to design, build, and test a spacecraft that can safely transport humans and cargo into space. It’s challenging to test spacecraft to ensure its millions of parts, systems, and processes are working correctly. It’s expensive to develop the technology, compensate engineers, scientists, mathematicians, manufacturers, and all the other integral professionals it takes to transform the dream of space travel into reality. It seems like those things get lost in the overpowering cynicism of today’s media and those who aren’t intimately involved in the industry.

As a Design Engineer and Engineering Director, I was involved in the development, certification and operational phases of both the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. History shows that we had our share of successes and failures, as evidenced by the loss of life on Apollo 1, Space Shuttles Challenger, and Columbia, as well as the near disaster of Apollo 13. I can tell you firsthand how fundamentally challenging it is to produce a safe, efficient, and cost-effective product. My career centered on trying to make the impossible, possible. That’s one reason why I’m so disappointed in the OIG’s report. It reads as though the Inspector General worked backward from a predetermined conclusion – that NASA is paying too much for this program – then filled in the necessary blanks to fit its narrative while ignoring important facts. Most alarming were its conclusions regarding the safety measures of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and its competitor, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

The Starliner has not only been developed by Boeing, a company that has more than a century of aerospace experience and expertise, but it has undergone rigorous testing for safety and quality control measures. Further, testing was performed on unmanned crews to mitigate risk to human life and each test confirmed Boeing’s success. By comparison, SpaceX is new to the world of spacecraft safety and development. It will test the Crew Dragon’s critical life and safety systems for the first time with a live crew, due to a NASA waiver. Despite the company’s infamous leader saying that the Crew Dragon’s newest parachute system is “possibly 10 times safer” than its predecessor, it has failed to pass its’ parachute testing – twice. NASA was concerned enough to wisely order additional testing.

Sending people into space is dangerous. Safety must be the number one priority. When dissecting and debating program costs, critics need to ask one simple question: what is the life of an American astronaut worth?

Speaking of cost, there’s another important element to this report that wasn’t readily available in its news coverage. That is, after SpaceX experienced launch failures in both 2015 and 2016, NASA understandably wanted to reevaluate and receive more flexibility on its launch schedule. Boeing was asked to deliver its product faster while maintaining the same level of safety and quality. That requires increased investment in technology, design, development, and manpower. Despite taking it on the chin in the media, Boeing has worked to deliver a human- rated space product on an advanced timeline while abiding by all government regulations and restrictions.

Safety and cost embellishments are only a couple of the concerning aspects of the OIG report and its media coverage. Of course there will be hiccups in a process that, by its nature, lends itself to complications and inherently requires significant investment. The bottom line in all of this is that criticizing one commercial capsule offering over another before either have sent astronauts into low earth orbit won’t help the cause of reigniting American space exploration. If the U.S. wants to be a leader in commercial space exploration, then the focus should be on taxpayer investment into safe, reliable and transparent production of rockets and vehicles. Everyone involved needs to remember that going to space is hard, plain and simple. They need to adjust their outlooks, and criticisms, accordingly.

– Tom Barrera Sr. retired after more than 30 years working with North American Rockwell and NASA on Project Apollo and the Space Shuttle Program. Tom was awarded the Astronauts "Snoopy" award and Sustained Excellence Performance Award in recognition of his contributions to the Apollo 13 investigation and Apollo 14 mission.

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