Image: Launch abort system
SpaceX
An artist's conception shows SpaceX's Dragon capsule blasting away from its Falcon 9 launch vehicle during ascent, using a "pusher" emergency rocket system.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 1/28/2011 12:56:10 AM ET 2011-01-28T05:56:10

NASA says private-sector spaceships will have to satisfy safety standards that the space shuttle can’t meet — and the companies building those spaceships say they'll rise to the challenge.

Friday's 25th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle explosion is focusing fresh attention on the issue of spaceflight safety, with good reason. The loss of the shuttle and its crew of seven, including educator-astronaut Christa McAuliffe, dramatically highlighted the risks associated with the world's most complex flying machine.

Those risks were brought home again with the catastrophic breakup of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. Once again, seven astronauts were lost, due to inherent problems with the space shuttle's design as well as lapses in NASA's "safety culture."

The Challenger and Columbia disasters led risk analysts to estimate that flying the space shuttle carried a roughly 1-in-100 chance that the crew and the spaceship would be lost during a given mission. In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, NASA and the White House decided to retire the shuttle fleet and move on to a simpler, safer launch system.

When NASA was working on plans for its own crew launch system to replace the shuttle and service the International Space Station, the agency set standards that lowered the chance of crew loss to 1-in-1,000.

"Neither the shuttle nor the Russian Soyuz could meet these standards," said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a member of the NASA Advisory Council's Exploration Committee.

Over the past year, the White House and NASA decided to go with a different approach, with the space agency purchasing services from commercial spaceship ventures. NASA is paying out hundreds of millions of dollars for the development of cargo ships such as SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which passed its first flight test last month. If the spaceships work as advertised, commercial companies would be in line for billions of dollars worth of contracts.

NASA eventually hopes to use commercial craft to ferry astronauts back and forth to the space station as well. But the job won't be easy. In a set of draft requirements issued last month, NASA said it expected commercial companies to measure up to the same risk standards the space agency expected for itself: a 1-in-1,000 chance that the crew would be lost during a journey to and from the space station.

"These are quite demanding and rigorous standards," Logsdon said.

Some space veterans think the commercial companies can't do it. Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan — who was the last man to walk on the moon back in 1972 — complained to Congress last year that the new players in spaceflight "do not yet know what they don't know, and that can lead to dangerous and costly consequences."

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Logsdon thinks the companies can do it. "I see no reason why a privately developed craft with NASA involved in a public-private partnership, perhaps to a greater degree than NASA has been involved with SpaceX to date, can't develop a spacecraft that meets these criteria," he said.

SpaceX thinks it can, too. The California-based company's millionaire founder, Elon Musk, has said repeatedly that he could have a crew-capable spaceship ready for use three years after getting NASA's go-ahead for the project.

But what about the 1-in-1,000 risk?

"It's difficult to put a physical measure to that number," said Ken Bowersox, a former NASA astronaut who is now SpaceX's vice president of astronaut safety, "but the idea is to have a vehicle that's safer than what's flying now."

Bowersox noted that the specific requirements for crew-capable vehicles were still under negotiation. Then he went on to say that, based on what NASA has put out so far, SpaceX has "a great chance of meeting those requirements."

The Boeing Co., which is the prime contractor for the International Space Station, strikes a similar tone. Boeing has proposed building a crew capsule called the CST-100 to send astronauts as well as paying passengers to the space station or other destinations.

"We will meet those requirements that NASA sets forth," said Edmund Memi, a spokesman for Boeing Space Exploration.

So what's the catch? First, there's cost. Bowersox said the development of a crew-capable Dragon would be "difficult to price right off the bat." One option would be to go with the traditional cost-plus arrangement used for building spacecraft — an arrangement that has led to escalating government expenses for programs in the past.

SpaceX would prefer to go with the type of fixed-price arrangement that was put into effect for the development of the Dragon cargo capsule and Falcon 9 rocket. But if that approach is used for developing a crew-capable Dragon, it would probably have to be done in well-defined phases, Bowersox said.

Bowersox's boss, Elon Musk, has said that the total development cost for a Dragon crew capsule would be on the order of $1 billion over three years. "To put that figure into perspective, that's roughly how much NASA will spend on Soyuz seats over the same period of time (assume six seats per year at an average of $55 million per seat)," Musk said in an e-mailed statement.

In addition to the dollars-and-cents issue, the commercial companies are wary of being too hamstrung by hundreds of pages of written requirements. Former space shuttle program director Wayne Hale, who retired from NASA last year, warned that excessive red tape could lead to a "train wreck" for the space agency's commercialization effort.

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"The thing with commercial crew is, you've got to have some leeway to meet those requirements, as long as you meet them," Boeing's Memi said.

Logsdon said NASA could find itself on the horns of a political dilemma: If it sticks to its requirement-laden traditions, commercial space companies might well be heading for the train wreck that Hale is worried about. But if the agency is perceived as relaxing its requirements, it could face congressional criticism for going soft on safety.

"Backing off from the current NASA standards to something that could be more reasonable is going to be tricky," Logsdon said.

New and improved spaceflight?
The commercialization effort is already leading to new, potentially improved approaches to spaceflight safety. For example, virtually every company working on a concept for a crew-capable spaceship is focusing on an innovative type of launch abort system that would push the capsule away from an out-of-control rocket.

The space shuttle has no launch escape system. If it did, there might have been a chance of saving Challenger's crew.

For its own future spacecraft, NASA had been focusing on the kind of launch escape tower system that was used during the Mercury and Apollo programs — but the "pusher" rocket system is more easily integrated into the capsule and won't go to waste after a successful launch. It can be used to control the spacecraft during its flight and descent, and reused on the missions that follow.

There are drawbacks: Tower systems have more "natural stability," SpaceX's Bowersox said, while pusher systems would require a more sophisticated control system. Also, a pusher abort system on a reusable spacecraft would have to be positioned to minimize the risk of damage during re-entry. Despite those drawbacks, SpaceX and other companies (such as Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Orbital Sciences and Blue Origin) are hard at work designing pushers with NASA funding.

"We think there are enough advantages to give that a try," Bowersox said.

Remembering past tragedies
Bowersox is well aware of what's at stake when it comes to spaceflight safety. When Columbia was lost in 2003, he was serving in orbit as commander of the International Space Station. He had to change his travel plans to come home on a Russian Soyuz craft rather than a space shuttle. And he still feels an ache over the loss of his friends in the astronaut corps.

Image: Ken Bowersox
NASA file
Ken Bowersox collects water samples on the International Space Station on Feb. 17, 2003, just a couple of weeks after the Columbia tragedy in which seven astronauts died.

"The emotions that come with that loss sometimes cause us to question what we do — and that questioning is healthy," he said.

So what kind of answer does Bowersox come up with? "This might sound corny," he said, "but I believe what we're doing now is critical for the future of our species. ... History will consider this a critical period in our existence, and I want to be part of that."

Ten thousand years from now, historians might well look at the present push into outer space as a turning point on a par with humanity's migrations out of Africa, or over the Bering Sea's land bridge into America, Bowersox said.

"The fact that space is a risky business, and that we have lost members of the astronaut profession, is one of the things that drive me at SpaceX," he said. "It is why I want to work on the safest, most reliable and economical vehicle for spaceflight."

With Challenger and Columbia in mind, would he ride that vehicle back into space? "The crew-transport Dragon that we're going to build will meet my standards, and I would feel confident riding on it," Bowersox said. "I'd love to fly on it, but I'm not assigned to a flight."

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Photos: The Challenger tragedy in pictures

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  1. From joy to tragedy

    The shuttle Challenger's mission in 1986 was meant to mark a milestone in spaceflight: the first orbital voyage of an American teacher. NASA's choice for the honor was Christa McAuliffe, a social-studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire. Here, McAuliffe rides past the New Hampshire State House in Concord with her daughter Caroline and son Scott, during a Lions Club parade on July 21, 1985. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Packing for Houston

    High-school teacher Christa McAuliffe folds her training uniform as she packs for the trip to Johnson Space Center in Houston on Sept. 8, 1985. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Preparing Challenger

    The space shuttle Challenger is transferred to the high bay of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 17, 1985. Inside the cavernous VAB, the Challenger orbiter was mated with its solid rocket boosters and external tank in preparation for its launch a month later. (Terry Renna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Zero-G and she feels fine

    Christa McAuliffe gets a preview of microgravity on NASA's specially equipped KC-135 "zero gravity" aircraft on Jan. 13, 1986. The plane flies in a parabolic pattern that provides short periods of weightlessness. For some people, those bouts of zero-G can induce nausea - which is why the airplane was nicknamed the "Vomit Comet." (Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. To the launch pad

    The shuttle Challenger is delivered to its launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center atop a mobile crawler-transporter. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Practicing for an escape

    Challenger's crew members practice the procedure for escaping from the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center using slide wire baskets. From left are Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe. Directly behind them are astronauts Judy Resnik and Ellison Onizuka. The basket system was designed to take the astronauts off the pad quickly if an emergency arose just before launch. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Ready for flight

    Challenger's crew members stand in the White Room at Launch Pad 39B after a dress rehearsal for launch. From left are Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnik, commander Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, pilot Michael Smith and Ellison Onizuka. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Heading for the pad

    Challenger's crew members leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center for the launch pad on Jan. 27, 1986. Commander Dick Scobee is at the front of the line, followed by Judy Resnick, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe and pilot Michael Smith. NASA had to scrub the launch attempt on Jan. 27, due to high winds at the pad, and liftoff was rescheduled for Jan. 28. (Steve Helber / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The first sign of trouble

    A launch-pad camera captures a close-up view of the shuttle Challenger's liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. From this camera position, a cloud of gray-brown smoke can be seen on the right side of the solid rocket booster, directly across from the letter "U" in "United States" on the orbiter. This was the first visible sign that a breach in the booster's joint may have occurred. Investigators determined that frigid overnight temperatures caused the booster joints' normally pliable rubber O-ring seals to become hard and non-flexible. The failure of the seals caused hot exhaust gases to blow through the joints, cutting into the external fuel tank. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Liftoff!

    A wide-angle view shows the ascent of the shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. In the seconds after ignition, the rocket engines' hot blast began the process of destruction. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Ice at the pad

    Why did the O-rings fail? On the day of the shuttle Challenger's launch, icicles draped structures at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The unusually cold weather, beyond the tolerances for which the rubber seals were approved, most likely caused the O-ring failure. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Watching the launch

    Classmates of the son of America's first teacher-astronaut cheer as the space shuttle Challenger lifts skyward from Launch Pad 39B on Jan. 28, 1986. Their delight turned to horror as the shuttle exploded 73 seconds into flight. The boy in the white hat and glasses at center is Peter Billingsley, the star of "A Christmas Story" and a spokesman for the young astronaut program. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The final seconds

    The right solid rocket booster on the shuttle Challenger begins to explode, just a little more than a minute into the shuttle's ascent from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986. (NASA via AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Moment of tragedy

    An orange fireball marks the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. (Bruce Weaver / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Remains of the rockets

    At about 76 seconds, fragments of the orbiter can be seen tumbling against a background of fire, smoke and vaporized propellants from Challenger's external fuel tank. The left solid rocket booster is still shooting skyward. A reddish-brown cloud envelops the disintegrating orbiter. The color is indicative of the nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer propellant in the orbiter's reaction control system. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Flying fragments

    This picture, released by the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger tragedy, shows fragments of the orbiter flying away from the explosion on Jan. 28, 1986, 78 seconds after liftoff. The top arrow shows the orbiter's left wing. The center arrow shows the orbiter's main engine; and the bottom arrow shows the orbiter's forward fuselage. Investigators suggested that some of Challenger's crew members may have survived the explosion itself but died in the fall down to Earth. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The tragedy sinks in

    Flight director Jay Greene studies data at his console inside Johnson Space Center's Mission Control Center in Texas, just minutes after the announcement that Challenger's ascent was not nominal. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A family's sorrow

    Members of teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe's family react shortly after the failed liftoff of the space shuttle Challenger from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986. Christa's sister, Betsy, is in front, with parents Grace and Ed Corrigan behind. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Death of a celebration

    Carina Dolcino, senior class president at Concord High School, is stunned by the news that the space shuttle carrying Christa McAuliffe, one of the school's teachers, exploded after launch on Jan. 28, 1986. Students watched the launch on television sets scattered throughout the school in Concord, N.H., and a celebration had been planned for a successful liftoff. (Ken Williams / Concord Monitor via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. White House watch

    President Ronald Reagan, center, is surrounded by members of his senior staff on Feb. 3, 1986, as he watches a TV replay of the Challenger shuttle explosion at the White House. From left are Larry Speakes, deputy White House press secretary; presidential assistant Dennis Thomas; special assistant Jim Kuhn; Reagan; White House communications director Patrick Buchanan; and chief of staff Donald Regan. (Peter Souza / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Sympathy at school

    Lisa Mitten of Concord, N.H., wipes tears from her eyes as her daughter Jessica reads some of the letters of sympathy that were on display at Concord High School on Feb. 1, 1986. Hundreds of Concord residents visited the school library to see the many telegrams and letters that were sent from all over the United States. (Toby Talbot / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Recovering debris

    Debris from the ill-fated shuttle Challenger is unloaded from the Coast Guard cutter Dallas during February 1986. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A piece of Challenger

    For weeks after the accident, search and recovery teams went out to retrieve Challenger debris from the Atlantic Ocean, with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy. Vessels brought pieces of debris to the Trident Basin at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, from which they were shipped to Kennedy Space Center for investigation. The Coast Guard cutter Dallas transported this fragment of exterior tiling. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Retrieved from the ocean

    A piece of debris from the space shuttle Challenger is hoisted onto the deck of the Stena Workhorse off the coast of Florida during a recovery mission. (Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Farewell to the fallen

    The remains of the shuttle Challenger's seven crew members are transferred from seven hearses to a MAC C-141 transport plane at the Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility, for transport to Dover Air Force Base, Del. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In memoriam

    President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, stand with the wife of astronaut Michael Smith and other family members at a memorial service for the victims of the Challenger disaster. (Diana Walker / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Grim investigation

    Apollo 11 moonwalker Neil Armstrong, a member of the presidential panel investigating the Challenger explosion, listens to testimony before the commission in Washington on Feb. 11, 1986. Another commission member, David Acheson, listens in the background. A model of the space shuttle sits on the table. (Scott Stewart / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Solving the puzzle

    Search and recovery teams located pieces of both the left and right sidewall of the shuttle Challenger during the months-long retrieval effort that followed the explosion on Jan. 28, 1986. Heat and fire damage scarred the right sidewall. But the left sidewall, depicted here, escaped the flames and suffered only from overload fractures and deep gouge marks. The largest intact piece formed part of the payload bay sidewall and measured approximately 30 by 12 feet. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Washed ashore

    Some pieces of the shuttle Challenger did not surface until long after the explosion. A tractor carries one of the shuttle's elevons after it washed ashore on Cocoa Beach, Fla., on Dec. 17, 1996 ... almost 11 years after the loss of Challenger and its crew. (AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Day of remembrance

    Every January, NASA recalls the Challenger explosion as well as other space tragedies on a "Day of Remembrance." Here, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe lays a wreath at the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Jan. 28, 2003. O'Keefe also paid tribute to the three astronauts of Apollo 1 who died in a launch pad fire on Jan. 27, 1967. Sadly, seven more astronauts died just days after this picture was taken, on Feb. 1, 2003, when the shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry. (Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Christa McAuliffe
    Jim Cole / AP
    Above: Slideshow (30) The Challenger tragedy in pictures
  2. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Video: After Challenger, NASA's next chapter still unwritten

  1. Closed captioning of: After Challenger, NASA's next chapter still unwritten

    >>> if you're old enough to remember, then you remember the event and you likely know exactly where you were when you learned the shuttle "challenger" had blown up, exploded on takeoff, killing seven astronauts, including christa mcauliffe , the first teacher in space . today has been a day to reflect on the tragedy and nasa 's changing mission. our report from nbc's tom costello.

    >> reporter: 25 years later, those images of "challenger's" smiling eager crew also bring gut-wrenching foreboding. we know of the safety shortcuts and those five words that stay with us forever.

    >> challenger, go with throttle up.

    >> i was a 17-year-old student. at that time thinking what did i just see? we weren't sure what we just saw.

    >> reporter: mikayla, now a teacher, was watching the launch at concord high school in new hampshire. the school where christa mcauliffe was teaching when she was selected to be the first teacher in space . instead for mikayla and thousands of kids across the country, "challenger" became a lesson in loss and grief.

    >> a shock of our teacher is no longer with us.

    >> reporter: today at the kennedy space center , a solemn tribute.

    >> we who remain on the ground and asked them to fly failed them that day as we would fail the crew of "columbia" 17 years later and as we failed the crew of " apollo 1 " 19 years before.

    >> reporter: commander dick scobee 's widow, june, has carried on the mission, founding the challenger learning center to inspire the next generation of teachers and explorers.

    >> we didn't want the "challenger" to be the end of the chapter in space exploration . we saw it as a transition chapter.

    >> reporter: now with the space shuttle fleet set to retire this year, the orbiting space station complete and a moon mission off the table, what's next for nasa ? where does it go?

    >> we've been so wrapped up in the shuttle, perhaps, that we haven't done enough forward planning.

    >> reporter: 25 years after "challenger" nasa 's next chapter is yet to be written. tom costello, nbc news, washington.

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