Commercial Crew Providers Face Key Safety Reviews

Credit: NASA

It’s crunch time for commercial crew providers Boeing and SpaceX as the companies attempt to meet NASA’s safety requirement of one possible fatal accident in 270 flights.The space agency is planning a comprehensive safety review of the spacecraft next month.

But these commercial efforts face formidable obstacles in meeting safety requirements set by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, posing policy and public-relations dilemmas for the agency’s chiefs.

Experts say NASA likely will require inspections in space to reduce the threat of catastrophic accidents, a last-ditch safeguard that it had hoped to avoid when approving the plan three years ago. Still, it is unclear is whether such on-orbit checks by NASA would alleviate dangers from space debris and tiny meteor fragments, say experts inside and outside the agency….

The commercial designers are seeking to alleviate other risks. They are concerned that extra shielding to better safeguard equipment and crews from collisions with debris could make spacecraft too heavy. They also are examining risks associated with vibrations during launch, explosives that deploy parachutes, vulnerabilities of heat shields and other issues.

But their biggest safety challenge stems from the thousands of tiny meteors or space particles now prevalent in space that can damage or penetrate the space capsules. Traveling at approximately 17,000 miles an hour, even a paint chip can spark disaster. Boeing partly addressed this by changing its design to install Kevlar backing. SpaceX is relying on other features.

  • Michael Halpern

    While helpful that doesn’t protect against everything and it’s not always an option.

  • Michael Halpern

    If you’re main concern is damage when docked to a station, it might be easier (at least for capsules and small lifting bodies) to have a protective shroud possibly attached to the station to envelope the spacecraft when docked or at least the heat shield, pressure sealing repair is easy you just need any quick vacuum setting pressurized fluid heck you can even have fabric pieces that get sucked over the leak to patch it or something similar, it’s the heat shield that you can’t fix so easily, and that is the single most critical point of failure on any crewed spacecraft that if damaged sufficiently represents an unrecoverable situation where the spacecraft cannot safely return to Earth and if that is your only option that means that damaged heat shield is a death sentence for the crew, everything else is fixable, might mean rationing food and difficult engineering but it is fixable if Apollo 13 and 14 taught us anything it was that, the heat shield, however isn’t something that can be patched with clever engineering, not without vast improvements to material science

  • windbourne

    Once melted, they will be fairly strong and any thing hitting them should be like hitting a metal asteroid.
    Otherwise, easy to break apart. As to components, they are 10-30 years old. Not much value.

  • windbourne

    No. I’m saying that if operators act like NASA under reagan and W, then yes, it will increase. Otoh, look at SX. Heavily automated with tonnes ( figuratively, I trust ) of sensors. As such, they do NOT repeat same issue.

  • windbourne

    10-30 year old is likely to NOT have much value. Otoh, gathering them as melted items and then in future re-running through foundry that separate the elements cleanly will enable initial manufacturing up there.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Alternatively an orbital replaceable heat shield.

    Unscrew damaged heat shield, discard, unwrap and insert new heat shield and screw in place.

  • Michael Halpern

    Bolting is more probable

  • Kirk

    What MMOD damage on Apollo 13?

  • therealdmt

    My bad. Faulty memory on my part as to the cause of that incident

  • Michael Halpern

    Taking human error out of the equation is always good, its also interesting that SX scrubbed a launch from Northrop Grumman for a problem that their “space division” Orbital ATK is known for, kind of ironic.

  • Jeff2Space

    They already had a capsule and and two ELVs (Apollo capsule on top of either Saturn IB or Saturn V). The problem was that Congress was quite tired of funding expensive expendable vehicles. So yet another all expendable vehicle with a single use capsule would not have been politically viable at the time.

    The space shuttle was an attempt at reuse. But in order to gain the political support it needed, they needed the support of DOD, which had requirements for a huge payload bay, a huge payload mass, and it had to do both on a single orbit mission which landed near the launch site (which meant huge cross-range on deorbit and landing). It’s the DOD requirements which pushed the design, not the original NASA requirements (which were for a small shuttle to service and resupply a space station).

  • Michael Halpern

    Solar panels, radiators, parabolic reflectors and plumbing (engine related generally) and any battery or fuel cell you can resurrect is useful, the value is more in the mass that you don’t have to lift into orbit, than anything else, the computer electronics are going to be mostly useless, unless you dismantle the circuit boards which is likely to be more effort than it’s worth given technology variance, but there is potential in anything mechanical or structural that doesn’t require slagging the whole thing, as far reprocessing goes, the easiest components will likely be the wires themselves, which saves you on how much you have to bring from Earth to work with.

  • Jeff2Space

    There were some “near misses” with the shuttle. Some of the hits on the radiators were close to the actual coolant lines. Puncture a coolant line and it’s not LOC, but it is loss of redundancy which causes the mission to be terminated early.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The Shuttle was only one option that Agnew Committee reviewed. Others used capsules and even kept the Saturn V in service. The Shuttle was picked by President Nixon on the promise it would be the cheapest option to keep the rocket scientists at NASA working and lower launch costs in the future.

    Yes, NASA pushed to have the DOD included because they needed the support of DOD to get it approved. Yes, the payload and cross range of the Shuttle required to make it useful to DOD resulted in it being made much larger than it needed. But the budget was never enough and so the designed was compromised with the hope that the flyback booster would be built once it was flying. But it never was and the result was a vehicle that failed to lower the cost of spaceflight.