Giffords: Constellation is Safest Option Forward

SUBCOMMITTEE ON SPACE AND AERONAUTICS PRESS RELEASE
December 2, 2009

Editor’s Note: This is the official press release published by the Subcommittee’s Democratic majority after this week’s hearing on human spaceflight safety.

Today, the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing to discuss how to ensure the safety of future human space flight in both government and non-government space transportation systems.

Specifically, the hearing examined the steps needed establish confidence in a space transportation system’s ability to transport astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) and safely return them to Earth, safety standards implementation and the safety certification process for space transportation vehicles, and the roles that training and experience play in enhancing the safety of human space missions.

“One of the most important issues confronting us is how to ensure the safety of those brave men and women whom the nation sends into space to explore and push back the boundaries of the space frontier. Of course, I am under no illusions that human spaceflight can ever be made risk-free. Nothing in life is,” said Subcommittee Chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). “We need to be sure that any decisions being contemplated by the White House and Congress are informed by our best understanding of the fundamental crew safety issues facing our human space flight program. And in making those decisions, we should not let either advocacy or unexamined optimism replace probing questions and thoughtful analysis.”

In recent months there has been increased discussion of current U.S. human space flight plans and potential alternative approaches. As part of that discussion, the possibility of shifting away from NASA’s Constellation program—which is developing new space transportation systems for use after the Space Shuttle is retired—and instead having U.S. astronauts rely on as-yet-to-be-developed commercial crew transportation services has been explored. In addition, the report offered alternative recommendations to ensure the future of human space flight is safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable. However, little has been said about the safety implications of the various alternative approaches, and the Subcommittee convened the hearing to get expert testimony on the crew safety issues associated with human space flight.

“It will be difficult to make reasoned judgments about the wisdom of investing significant taxpayer dollars in would-be commercial providers or of altering Congress’s commitment to the existing Constellation program in the absence of clear answers to the many questions that surround commercial systems that do not yet exist.” said Giffords.

Witnesses included a cross-section of individuals knowledgeable about human space flight safety issues, including representatives of NASA, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, a world-renowned risk analyst, and former Gemini and Apollo astronaut Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford.

“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,” concluded Giffords.