Protecting Commercial Spaceflight’s Future Starts by Raising the Bar

(Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

In this ever-changing news cycle that is 2020, the eyes of America were briefly directed towards Cape Canaveral over the weekend as SpaceX launched two astronauts to the International Space Station (“ISS”). In this historic moment, the United States returned as the launching point for space-bound travelers as it became the first nation to use a private company for their rocket. With the first half of the mission complete, the country now waits, hopeful for a safe return.

The weeks leading up to the launch featured a mix of worry and excitement. Weather concerns delayed the operation by a few days, leaving time for many to dredge up the past tragedies of Columbia and Challenger and to react to the SpaceX Starship explosion on Friday. These bad memories may have added to the suspense of Saturday’s launch, but they could not dampen the spirit of the crew or onlookers as the rocket made its way to the ISS.

There was justifiably immense pride and excitement from all parties involved over this success, but this could quickly evaporate if these newcomers to space dont accept and act on some hard realities.

Space travel is a dangerous game. Every launch essentially consists of placing humans on top of a missile and shooting them through miles of hot atmosphere into the void of space. Since many commercial spaceflight companies are new to this game and are still proving their worth, they cannot afford to make any mistakes.

Lets face it. Fair or not, across all industries, the world seldom gives any mercy for the newbie. The commercial spaceflight blunders of the past, like SpaceXs explosions in 2015and 2016, or Virgin Galactics ship crash in 2014, were unmanned and occurred during the companiesinfancies. But with astronauts now getting on board, any leeway they may have had in the past will quickly evaporate. Just one error that involves precious human cargo can mean public outrage that jeopardizes the future of this new private-sector movement in space entirely.

Let me be clear: as a collective, companies like SpaceX are capable of creating an impressive chapter in the textbook of American innovation. However, when it comes to human space flight, they must be managed correctly and they must focus on safety and success over cost-cutting

The days of shortcuts and risky cost-cutting from new entrants to the space industry must come to an end. According to NASA, SpaceXs 2015 explosion was caused by the company implementing a low-grade part without adequate screening or testing of the industrial grade part, without regard to the manufacturers recommendations for a 4:1 factor of safety when using their industrial grade part in an application, and without proper modeling or adequate load testing of the part under predicted flight conditions.” Taking these chances didnt make sense when the company was launching satellites and other comparable cargo, and it certainly isnt acceptable to continue rolling the dice now that humans are on board

We need private companies like SpaceX in the marketplace today. But its incumbent on NASA to police all of its contractors for quality control and to set a high bar for their success, just as these companies must limit the risk of their government-sanctioned missions in any way they can. Other more established players in the space industry have been held to these high standards for decades. It is now time for NASA to require these newcomers to meet the same safety standards. Anything less is unacceptable.

Thankfully, the future has the potential to start gleaming even brighter for private space travel in the not-too-distant future. Bringing home the two astronauts SpaceX sent up will help tremendously in inciting more enthusiasm for commercial space. Extensive work went into the new designs for the return capsule, and if it succeeds without a hitch, many of those who remain skeptical of the SpaceX because of last weeks Starship explosion may begin to feel more confidence in the companys abilities. Musk has talked about preparing for the return flight, which involved extensive work on capsule and parachute design. He did say the return was his greatest fear for disaster, and he is correct. But all Americans are hopeful that this return mission is both safe and successful.

We must also remember that flying to the ISS isn’t deep space exploration which is orders of magnitude more difficult than even going to the ISS. So SpaceX’s success here is to be lauded, but it is a far cry from getting us back to the Moon, or to Mars and beyond.

The private sector has played a big role in America’s history in space. They worked with NASA to get us to the moon. They built the ISS and the Shuttle program. And the private sector will continue to represent the future in space, but only if NASA and these companies do everything they can to keep astronauts out of harms way.

Heres hoping everyone involved acts prudently so that Americans can continue looking forward to the next big commercial spaceflight journeys to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.