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New Space Age Requires Greater Focus on Astronaut Safety

The commercialization of space will lead to more space flights, but that need not mean greater danger for our astronauts

Recently an American U.S. astronaut was forced into ballistic descent as a Russian Soyuz rocket malfunctioned on its way to the International Space Station (ISS).

Thankfully, rescuers managed to locate their capsule and find them without much damage, but this harrowing episode raises a larger question: When will astronaut safety be treated like the priority that it should be?

With the creation of President Trump’s Space Force, there is a new opportunity for more flights than ever before in future.

But with more flights comes more chances for mechanical or human error. That’s why it’s critical for government leaders to demand higher degrees of security than ever before.

Presently, NASA tolerates a 1 in 270 loss of crew ratio. While that’s a step up from the 1 in 80 we saw during the Space Shuttle years, it is not strict enough. Before we begin using private companies to send men into space, we must demand more certainty and reliability.

When the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reviews and revises its regulations as stipulated by President Trump’s recent SPD-2 executive order signed this summer, safety, not convenience, should be at the top of mind.

While all rocket companies claim this to be their goal, SpaceX and other newer commercial providers — ones that the FAA has allegedly met with in private for over a year — seem intent on pushing for the relaxation of important rules that may complicate launches but do so for the important reason of protecting the public.

Dig even just a little, and you will find that the same contractors that have the most quality control concerns also appear to be the ones most adamant about relaxing current regulations.

For example, NASA found out this year that a SpaceX rocket exploded years ago because it implemented a lower-level part “without adequate screening or testing of the industrial grade part, without regard to the manufacturer’s 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.”

Yet, an investigation conducted by SpaceX — the same company that seems to want laxer FAA regulations — would have had you believe that it was all a suppliers’ fault. Oddly, though, the one FAA member on the company’s investigation team never signed off on the company’s report — perhaps because they weren’t buying what the company was selling.

And this is a company that the FAA is listening to in crafting new public safety problems?

Inconvenience is never a good excuse for creating unnecessary public safety risks. SpaceX has an imperfect launch track record, as shown through reports from the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel and Department of Defense Inspector General.

That’s why it’s critical that moving forward, the FAA solicits the opinions of all subject matter experts and launch providers, not just a select few that may have a vested financial interest in oversimplifying the process.

We have already lost all-too-many astronauts on past governmental missions. As space policy becomes a greater national priority, we should learn from our mistakes and do everything in our power to ensure they don’t happen again.

Matt Mackowiak is president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group. He’s a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators.

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