Commercial Human Spaceflight: Innovation and Safety

Commercial Human Spaceflight: Innovation and Safety

I have another article published on Astralytical’s site. It’s about the rapid growth of commercial Earth observation in the space industry. It has numbers and some observations about what those numbers might mean for that segment’s future. You can read it here “The (Growing) Business of Observing the Blue Marble.”

CBS Reports published a video last week, “Space Tourism: The Next Great Leap.” The story presented what was in the title, focusing on the human spaceflight part of the space industry. Overall, the report’s story was balanced, although I take issue with the notion that WorldView’s business is spaceflight. I appreciated Hayley Arceneaux’s telling of her selection for SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission. It is worth watching.

Innovation, the Industry’s Overused Mad-Lib Noun

However, one of the assumptions heard during the story was that of innovation and regulation and how they can’t interplay. Within 30 seconds of the report’s beginning, the narrator states:

“Commercial spaceflights delivering an era of unprecedented innovation at warp speed.” 

Er. Warp speed? Innovation? In human spaceflight? Is this the same human spaceflight sector that companies like Virgin Galactic have been “developing” for over 20 years? Is Virgin Galactic’s pace warp speed? The space shuttle, a remarkably complex orbital launch system, took about 12-13 years from concept to launch. On the other hand, Virgin Galactic has had difficulty delivering short suborbital human space rides, much less “unprecedented innovation” in a more extended period. What do they mean by innovation, even if the reporter and his interviewees unsparingly use the word during the report?

To quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” That observation applies to the narrator and every person the reporter interviews. In the report, innovation appears like the Force but is less explainable. Except that innovation is explainable and has been for decades. In business guru Peter Drucker’s view, innovation... 

“ an economic or social rather than a technical term. It can be defined the way J. B. Say defined entrepreneurship, as changing the yield of resources. Or, as a modern economist would tend to do, it can be defined in demand terms rather than in supply terms, that is, as changing the value and satisfaction obtained from resources by the consumer.”

Innovation creates/changes resources. It exists to make life better for people, not for its own sake. Hopefully, this isn’t news to anyone, but sometimes repetition helps. Drucker further outlined seven possible sources of innovation (probably more) in his book “Innovation and Entrepreneurship.” It’s a good read (for business nerds). 

Give Us a List

In the CBS report, some interviewees use innovation as a foil against government regulation. The reporter’s interviewees seem to believe that government regulation would prevent innovation. I won’t argue that here. What I will observe, however, is that if the current human spaceflight companies believe they have been innovating in the decades of no/little regulation, then where are those innovations? What are they? 

Is flying people on a suborbital path, something NASA accomplished in the early 1960s, innovative? Is launching people into Earth’s orbit–something the United States, Russia, and China have done–innovative? Is the fact that it’s all being offered to the public the innovation? What is the resource being changed?

This is not to say there isn’t innovation in the space industry overall. Still, for a part of the relatively unregulated industry, very little innovation is occurring in the part containing human spaceflight. As noted earlier, Virgin Galactic has been doing its thing for over 20 years and seems to be ready to fly tourists to sub-orbit. On the other hand, Blue Origin is still wrestling with the consequences of its New Shepard failure. What are the innovations either one is supposed to be using for their businesses? Is it financing development through ticket sales?

The reporter can be forgiven for repeating words from these companies (which a reporter should do) and then accepting them at face value (which many reporters do but shouldn’t). Innovative human spaceflight is an exciting idea that has been promoted for decades. It’s been hyped up for that long.

However, the report focuses on human spaceflight safety, so questioning claims about how innovative the human spaceflight business is doesn’t add to the story. Perhaps the reporter should explore that idea because innovation and silence are being used to hinder passenger safety questions in these “prototype” systems.

Safety on Innovation’s Altar

The reporter does a decent job of bringing a few basic safety questions. And the answers, or lack thereof, from the companies in the human spaceflight business, give a huge impression–in the wrong way. A word of advice to these companies: if a reporter is asking questions about your safety practices, you should already have answers to those questions ready. The report isn’t from an internet space fan news site that will give you a pass. 

And you should provide those answers. Your silence will only make people curious about your practices, so they might not believe your explanations. Sure, CBS is not the media powerhouse it once was, but many lawmakers are in the demographic that still watches “the television.” Those lawmakers might be interested in the human spaceflight businesses in the U.S. No lawmaker wants a deadly suborbital disaster happening in their district, especially a preventable one that didn’t reference aerospace industry standards. 

At least George Nield, a person with knowledge of the human spaceflight industry (from the regulation side), gave his perspective. He noted that current FAA regulations have everything to do with the uninvolved public. If a massive explosion or equipment re-entering a populated area is possible, then the FAA concerns itself with that. He confirms that human spaceflight passengers don’t have that protection. Worse, they are forced to rely on the companies’ word, hoping their parochial practices are up to snuff. 

When it comes to safety, hope for perfection is the aspiration. Standards, practices, processes, and more help people survive when aspirations are dashed. That’s what the interview with Operator Solutions brings forward. Things will go wrong. They just do. People need to be trained, or at the very least, have a trained crew guiding them to survive when things go wrong. 

They need resources, too. Is there a radio that will work no matter what that is available to passengers and crew? Does the company have a standby team to move out immediately when something goes wrong? Are there even basic survival kits? Will masks deploy in the case of a loss of cabin pressure? Or are these companies approaching Pythom-levels of nonchalance in their operations?

Questionable Claims

It’s infuriating that the Commercial Spaceflight Federation representative points to the regulation moratorium (the learning period) as necessary. Her examples of innovation–vehicle design and development–are questionable for a few reasons. The companies with operational suborbital launch systems for humans are using vehicle designs that were **maybe** fresh two decades ago. They aren’t innovations but more like technical curiosities. They aren’t, economically nor socially, changing or creating resources.

Virgin’s current and next-generation designs aren’t innovative and, based on the company’s own business plans, dead-ends into fair-ride territory, with possible branches into research. And Blue Origin…well, aspects of the New Shepard’s reusability design are supposed to shape some of New Glenn’s technology. Since the company is following SpaceX in that regard while selling launches for higher prices, claims of innovation seem like hucksterism.

The CSF representative also notes that the safety environment needs to mature, which is inaccurate–especially after two decades of development. NASA, an agency with more people in orbit than the companies the CSF represents, has established safety practices for its people. With over 50 years of experience, learning from mistakes, ignoring its own safety practices, etc., to believe that space safety is maturing instead of being established, no matter how new the technology is, seems like a dumb claim to make. 

The safety environment needs to be in place, an accepted part of business plans–that’s the baseline these companies should be working from, not towards. To say that innovation can’t happen because those darn safety regulations are getting in the way is not to understand what innovation is and where innovation comes from. It may imply that a company isn’t innovative at all. Instead, innovation is the excuse not to be responsible, to put the burden of responsibility on customers. 

And because the companies aren’t being transparent/forthcoming in their safety practices, no matter who asks, how can customers even compare the risks they’re signing up for? This is one of the lowest-hanging fruits to grab in the industry. Still, the companies’ unwillingness to reveal their safety practices makes me wonder if they even believe their procedures are the best they can bring to keep their customers safe.