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As the moratorium expires, a focus on safety culture, collaboration, and transparency can promote safety while allowing the industry to innovate and grow.

A Safety Framework for Commercial Human Spaceflight

By: Dr. Josef Koller

The year 2021 was extraordinary for commercial human spaceflight. After a long-anticipated development cycle, the world watched several companies successfully launch humans into suborbital and orbital space. These launches were truly an extraordinary achievement and broadly celebrated. However, there is also an open, lingering question: Is it time for a regulatory framework to further promote the safety of commercial spaceflight passengers or can safety be left to the industry alone?

The current approach in the launch community is to develop industry consensus standards before regulations are imposed. There is a fear among commercial providers that regulation will only be a hindrance and could slow down innovation and progress. Meanwhile, the broader community fears that an accident would set back the industry by decades and slow down progress even more. These concerns illustrate the lack of clarity around a “right” balance for fostering both commercial innovation and safety. Would government regulation guarantee an accident-free environment or would industry standards provide any such guarantees? The answer is that neither can provide a guarantee, but both together can provide a safer environment.

The human space launch industry can be categorized into a “triad” of transportation modalities: vertical launches (such as SpaceX and Blue Origin), horizontal launches (such as Virgin Galactic), and balloon-type launches (like Space Perspective and World View). There is a fourth type, centrifugal launch (like SpinLaunch) which we do not anticipate as being used for human transportation. After studying and analyzing the cost-benefit of regulation for a nascent and diverse industry with only a handful of companies, we found that regulators need to identify common denominators to capture the broad variety of technologies.

What these vastly different launch technologies have in common are the passengers they carry. In addition, vehicles are designed, operated, and maintained by people. In essence, any complex system has people involved. People make mistakes, but they also catch mistakes and mitigate hazards and improve the system. People are the “boots on the ground” who can mitigate hazardous situations before they lead to disaster.

A safety framework focusing on industry consensus standards is a necessary start, but probably not sufficient. As a path forward, an Aerospace team developed a suitable safety framework with three main components that are key to an oversight regime that is innovation permissible, adaptive to the industry, collaborative, and technically informed. The components to achieve such an oversight framework are: (1) People, because people are those who make mistakes; (2) A positive and just safety culture, so people can pause work without fear of retribution; and (3) Data collection and analytics. In particular, safety data collection and subsequent analysis enable the human spaceflight sector to prevent accidents and predict failure modes. Anything else would be considered retroactive and inadequate as such. Nobody wants to wait for an accident to happen in order to investigate a failure mode. The paradigm of failing often and early stops being applicable once passengers are on board. At that time, the operations need to be safe.

Today, the FAA is under a moratorium from regulating the safety of human space participants. However, the “learning period” is scheduled to expire in October 2023. Until then, it is solely up to commercial operators to ensure the safety of their passengers. Nobody, including the FAA, anticipates a heavy-handed regulatory framework as the next step. Instead, a slow transition with a focus on safety culture, collaboration, and transparency can promote safety while allowing the industry to innovate and grow.

About the Author

Josef Koller is a systems director for the Center for Space Policy and Strategy at The Aerospace Corporation, where he serves as a senior analyst and team leader on topics that cut across policy, technology, and economics. Koller is also the co-founder of The Aerospace Corporation’s Space Safety Institute, which leads and advances spaceflight safety across the space enterprise from human spaceflight safety, launch, reentry, space operations, space situational awareness, cyber, and spectrum. Koller has been interviewed by and quoted in a variety of media outlets including NBC News, New York Times, NPR Marketplace, SpaceNews, and Popular Science. He is also on the editorial board of the Journal of Space Safety Engineering. Prior to joining Aerospace, Koller served as a senior advisor to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, where he directly supported key national and international strategy efforts for space-related U.S. government and DOD policy matters. His portfolio included commercial remote sensing, space traffic management, and related congressional affairs. Prior to that assignment, Koller managed and co-led more than 40 scientists in the Space Science and Applications Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He also established and led the Los Alamos Space Weather Summer School to promote graduate student research and outreach at the laboratory. Koller has more than 20 years of experience in space science, space policy, astrophysics, and strategy development. He has authored more than 50 peer-reviewed scientific publications with over 1,400 citations.