Today there is widespread agreement that Mars is our human space exploration "horizon goal." There seems to be less agreement on how safe future human space transportation should be. It is less an argument among those who have responsibilities in human space flight. However, public opinion is increasingly influenced by uninformed opinions on social media. This is an important fundamental issue to be addressed if we are going to pursue human space exploration.
We know human space flight is inherently risky. Even when the best technical minds attempted to prevent every possible failure, we have still had tragic accidents. These accidents were followed by extensive government investigations finding shortcomings in design, analysis and human judgment, even though the programs were being extremely careful. Human spaceflight is complicated. The machines and operations are unforgiving. It is, after all, "rocket science"! Imagine the tragic outcomes if we began flying with the sorts of cavalier attitudes we read in the blogs today.
However, engineers can be overzealous in their requirements, making spacecraft designs overly complicated. When I was NASA's Associate Administrator for Exploration, I was responsible for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs, Commercial Crew and Cargo, as well as Human Research and Technology programs. We began an effort to streamline human-rating requirements to be no more than just what was needed while still preserving safety. This thought process would be valid for streamlined commercial programs, but also for the SLS and Orion programs. Using good judgment, the line can be drawn for all these programs, where there are just enough good requirements to be safe. If we are willing to fly astronauts on commercial vehicles, the same level of requirements should also be satisfactory for the SLS and Orion. The oversight of these developments should also be equivalent. If NASA can become satisfied with less oversight for emerging designs from relatively new companies, then they should not require any more oversight for companies that have been flying missions for over 50 years. We must realize that making mistakes in drawing this line between too much and too little in requirements and oversight may become measured in lives and tragedy. Sober judgment is required for such decisions, not cavalier cynical attitudes advocated in the media.
NASA's requirements for human rating a spacecraft and boosters are justifiably more rigorous than those prescribed for cargo delivery vehicles. Cargo safety requirements are primarily for operations in proximity to the International Space Station (ISS). When people are flown, vehicles must additionally be proven to be safe for launch, in-space, entry and recovery operations.
Some critics attempt to trivialize the transition from cargo to human transportation, suggesting that designing a lower-cost vehicle at the expense of crew safety is perfectly acceptable. It is not. In fact, accident investigations and legislation have consistently dictated that crew safety should be the highest priority in the development of any human-rated spacecraft, reflecting concerns from past accidents.
When NASA partnered with private companies to develop cargo supply vehicles for the ISS, we did so under Space Act Agreements (SAA) that provide shared NASA and company investment and flexibility in capability development. It also results in less government insight, oversight and control, although companies have provided access and data. Under SAAs, technical, safety and other requirements could not be legally imposed and were possible only under Cargo Resupply Services contracts.
In developing the vehicles for transport of astronauts to ISS, members of Congress are reasonably insisting on Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based contracts to ensure NASA's ability to impose requirements, along with insight into the development process, and additionally providing a clear understanding of how taxpayer investments are spent. As stated in a June 5, 2014, NASA Inspector General Report, "NASA's use of SAAs has the potential to result in fewer overall protections for the Agency as well as decreased accountability of taxpayer funds." Historically, in both fixed-price contracts and cost-plus contracts there have been program overruns when the government changed requirements. FAR regulations were written to protect the government based on past experience. However, efficiencies and innovation in contracting are important. FAR regulations can be tailored to reflect the best ideas. It is not all black and white, evil or good as reflected in the media. NASA must contract and manage responsibly, or developments may run into problems, and then there will be hard and embarrassing questions to answer.
While ensuring safe access to ISS, operation of the ISS, and the development of NASA's deep-space exploration vehicles, Orion and the SLS, the U.S. is on a steady course for human exploration deeper into space. Placing humans on Mars by the 2030s is an achievable goal. NASA, along with industry partners are taking all necessary steps and precautions to ensure that our astronauts will be safe as they embark on the most challenging missions undertaken by man.