M2-F2 crash.jpg

credit NASA / caption: the pilot lost an eye, if such an event strikes space tourism what will be lost?

The 10 May 1967 crash of NASA’s M2-F2 lifting body, pictured above, is well known because the US television series Six Million Dollar Man used film of it for its opening credits but it is also an example of the technological hurdles that are faced by anyone looking at reentry vehicles

The personal spaceflight industry may see a variety of vehicles take to the skies in the years to come and it is very unlikely that none will have a crash of some sort. The International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS) is an organisation of safety professionals from the world’s major space agencies and aerospace companies and space tourism was a subject at its conference in Rome in October last year

 At the conference the European Aviation Safety Agency’s general aviation project certification manager Jean-Bruno Marciacq spoke about certification for space tourism vehicles. In the article below, provided exclusively to Hyperbola, IAASS president Tommaso Sgobba talks about why having a safety programme, which could enable the sort of certification seen in car racing, may not lead to zero accidents but it is the best way to avoid an accident that ends the industry


Is space tourism industry smarter than Formula 1 car racing industry? Nowadays Formula 1 cars are extraordinarily safe vehicles. Years of bitter experience and deaths have led the sport to produce cars which can hit walls at high speeds without the drivers being injured.

It was the Imola Grand Prix of 1994 with the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna that forced the car racing industry to look seriously at safety or risk to be banned forever. In the days after the Imola crashes Max Mosley the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) President forced changes onto industry. Mosley wanted safety to be treated scientifically. He wanted it to enter the computer age.

In order to do this he established the FIA Advisory Expert Group under Professor Sid Watkins. Its  job was to investigate the use of technology to improve car and circuit safety, structural design and crash resistance of cars, airbags, crash helmets, head and lateral impact protection, seat belts and other forms of restraint, absorbent foams.

Since 1994, Formula 1 cars have continued to spectacularly improve both in performance and safety. Each new F1 car undergoes a strictly enforced FIA safety certification process. If it fails a safety test and the problem cannot be fixed in time, bad luck! The team will have to run with last year (certified) car!                                  
Much of the current discussion about space tourism safety is about pros and cons of safety regulations. This is “smart” way of changing a technical discussion into a “religion war”. The question should be different. Is space tourism industry applying state-of-art design techniques learned in 50 years of human spaceflight to make their vehicles safe? Are they improving them?

The answer cannot be a simple YES. It must be motivated. It must be something that an independent expert should be allowed, indeed encuoraged, to verify. Recently top officials from the space-tourism industry stated that the risk when boarding SpaceShipTwo will be 1 in 10,000. But what is behind such figure a “management” guess or the result of a state-of-art scientific design process. We do not know!

This figure seems rather optimistic when compared with the safety record of the SpaceShipTwo closest relative, the USAF experimental aircraft X-15, which flew 199 test flights before cancellation in 1968. The X-15 suffered four major accidents, of which one with casualty (Maj. Michael Adams). The comparable fatality risk is therefore at best about 1 in 200 flights.

Such discrepancy somehow reminds us of an earlier debate about Shuttle risk and the comments of Dr. Feynman, Nobel Price laureate and member of the Presidential Commission which investigated the Shuttle Challenger accident. Dr. Feynman wrote to the Presidential Commission that: “It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a [Shuttle] failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management.

What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? What is  the cause of management’s fantastic faith in the machinery? One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.”                                                                        
What would eventually kill the private spaceflight industry is not the lack of safety regulations, but the lack of a modern safety program! Why wait for accidents to happen before implementing those features and means that are already within our knowledge and technology reach?

Accidents will not kill industry unless they are stupid accidents!