In the past year, we have experienced three aviation deaths at or near the Las Cruces Municipal Airport. All three of the accidents are being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB website states in part, it is a federal agency which does not assign fault or blame for an accident or incident. Their job is to investigate transportation accidents, determine probable cause, issue safety recommendations, and to evaluate the safety effectiveness of government agencies involved in transportation. When there is a loss of life in aviation, the NTSB investigates, and this is good for the safety of the flying public. We rely on the commercial airline operators to not only assure their pilots are qualified, but also they make sure their planes are maintained to FAA standards. We rely on the airports to make sure they are following all FAA procedures. All of these operators work together to assure our safety. We must expect the same from the companies developing human spaceflight vehicles.
This past week I was in Washington D.C. to speak at the annual International Test and Evaluation Association (ITEA) meeting. I was asked to discuss the research we are doing at NMSU on behalf of the FAA Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. During the flight out and back I spent most of my time reading the NTSB’s Accident Investigation of the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) breakup. If I read to answer a question, I don’t lose interest in a long document. The question; is there a link to what the accident report says that would help the members of ITEA understand how important their work and knowledge is to our work in commercial space transportation here in New Mexico.
White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) has been conducting tests on incoming and outgoing flight vehicles for the Department of Defense for over 70 years. WSMR human space flight vehicle support tests included the Orion escape system test conducted on the range by Lockheed Martin. The WSMR Vision addresses expanding their customer base to include commercial programs. At the ITEA meeting I sat with Tom Berrard, former Test Director at WSMR. He was on site when we conducted our first UP Aerospace missile flight from the spaceport in 2007. I discovered multiple connections for the ITEA audience in the NTSB report in addition to the already existing synergy we know can exist between federal and commercial ranges. I hoped to convince the audience to reach out to the commercial spaceports in the light of the NTSB report on the SS2 accident. I owe whatever ability I have to connect the dots to Rear Admiral Paul K. Arthur who retired as Technical Director from White Sands Missile Range. We met in 1994 at the first New Mexico Space Grant Strategic Planning meeting held at the Hilton, now the Hotel Encanto.
During the meeting that I asked if anyone had assets or resources they could contribute to help us accomplish the goals created during the meeting. One of the goals was to establish a Student Launch Program to train the workforce for the spaceport that the State of New Mexico agreed to establish 3 year earlier in 1991. Len Sugerman was at this meeting and he who introduced me to Admiral Paul K. Arthur. In response to my question, the Admiral invited me to observe a launch at the Missile Range the very next day. He told me to be at the gate at 5am in order to be escorted to the test site for a 6:30 am launch. It was during that launch, which was scrubbed because the test equipment was not operating properly, that Paul said he would offer a launch site at WSMR to our yet to be started Student Launch Program. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that lasted until his death last year.
Commercial launch vehicles are licensed by the FAA. Flights from the spaceport must also be licensed by the FAA. The Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) of 1984 and subsequent amendments outline the growing guidance from the FAA to launch operators and spaceport operators. The most recent extension provides that the “learning period” for the industry be extended through 2025, which limits the ability of the FAA to enact regulations regarding the safety of spaceflight participants. They can only regulate to protect the uninvolved public.
The FAA is required to provide observers during the design and fabrication of a human spaceflight vehicle and personnel to review Experimental Permit applications for flight vehicles such as the SpaceShipTwo. The FAA is also tasked with observing test flights. If there is an accident, the NTSB investigates. The NTSB does not regulate the commercial space transportation industry, the Federal Aviation Administration does (FAA). The FAA is restricted by Congress from regulating this industry. We, the flying public, must get more demanding about what we expect from the designers, testers and leadership of this commercial space transportation industry. The FAA is looking to the states to regulate the industry right now. Here is the link to the National Transportation Safety Board’s Report on the, In-Flight Breakup During Test Flight Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo http://ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/AAR1502.aspx.
This learning period for the commercial space transportation flight developers is a time where as the NTSB report states, “the civilian and military aviation and government aerospace industries have guidance for developing new systems that is based on decades of research, application in real-world environments, analysis and lessons learned. Furthermore the NTSB report states, “Humans are susceptible to making mistakes regardless of the type of vehicle being operated, and system designs that account for the possibility of human error can help ensure safer vehicle operations.”
Our State has invested $210 million in the spaceport. One of its customers, Virgin Galactic, is committed to flying humans to space safely. This is a learning period that must be taken seriously. The NTSB report must be read in full by every member of our Spaceport Authority Board and by the State of New Mexico Transportation Secretary. This report is clear in its findings. Fortunately the President of Virgin Galactic will be at ISPCS in October. He will speak to this report among other topics. Rather than work on mythology, assumptions, or worse, ignorance, let’s get our community together to bring expertise we have and need into the next phase of planning for the success of the spaceport and its customers.
Virgin Galactic is now the designer and builder of the next space flight vehicle. They are our partners, our prime customer and have consistently been willing to take on the hard lessons. This NTSB report is certainly a challenge for all of us. Read it and make up your own minds.