Will Watson, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, made some over-the-top statements about the Space Shuttle on a blog at the Forbes website.

It’s important to note that this is a “contributor” blog. That means the author does not work for Forbes. She is an amateur blogger. Thus, she has no obligation to fact-check Watson’s statements or present contrary views. If she had, the errors would have been obvious.

Watson says, “the Shuttle killed more people than any space vehicle in history.” He finds that fact “horrifying.” What Watson says is technically true, as far as it goes, but it’s taken out of context. Watson fails to note the non-horrifying reason for this “horrifying” fact: the Shuttle has flown more often and carried more people than any space vehicle in history.

Watson is repeating a meme that developed soon after January 2004, when President George W. Bush called for the NASA to replace the Shuttle with an expendable rocket and capsule (originally called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, later Orion) – a plan strongly supported by the Space Frontier Foundation. This meme says that expendable capsules are inherently more reliable than reusable vehicles, as proven by the Shuttle.

The SFF seems to have bought into this meme, which is completely unsupported by fact. There have been a number of fatal accidents involving capsules, which enthusiasts constantly ignore, and there’s no statistically valid evidence that capsules are any safer than the Space Shuttle.

The Shuttle was also expensive to operate, as Watson says, but it was actually less expensive (per flight and per astronaut) than the Orion capsule would be. So, Watson’s complaints about Shuttle costs ring false.

Unfortunately, this is the the latest in a pattern of misstatements about safety from the Space Frontier Foundation.

A few weeks ago, the SFF webmasters added a new page about suborbital vehicles. On the new page, the Foundation made the following statements about suborbital vehicles:

One of the most common questions we ge is “Will the flights be safe?”. The answer is ABSOLUTELY. We will not fly in any vehicle that hasn’t been approve by the FAA and been test flown for thousands of hours. The first vehicles will be those designed for general use in the space touism industry and will not be anymore hazardous than commercial air travel today. We do understand that space flight is an inherently dangers activity with many potential risks. However, we participate in many activities that are also equally dangerous such as skydiving, mountain climbing, zero-G flights, and even driving a vehicle. We will not fly any teacher until the FAA has deemed a vehicle safe by its standards.

Note: all typos are per the original.

We analyzed these statements and pointed out the multiple errors in a previous article. Weeks after our analysis appeared, the Foundation finally updated its website and removed the statements from one location. Unfortunately, the same statements remain online at another location on the SFF website. [UPDATE: After this article appeared, the Space Frontier Foundation abruptly removed the second web page, resulting in some broken links from other pages on the SFF website. There is no sign of a public retraction, however. It appears the SFF is simply trying to pretend the page never existed.]

To briefly recap, no suborbital developer expects to test fly vehicles for “thousands of hours” before they begin commercial operations. Flying a suborbital vehicle for thousands of hours would mean thousands or tens of thousands of test flights – no operator could afford that. Neither commercial space-transportation companies nor government regulators believe that suborbital vehicles will be as safe as commercial airliners in the foreseeable future. It took 100 years of continuous development for airliners to reach the level of safety they enjoy today. To expect suborbital spacecraft to achieve the same level of safety in their first few generations is not reasonable.

Spaceflight is recognized by the US government (both Congress and FAA regulators) as an intrinsically dangerous activity whose risks will be slowly reduced over time. The FAA does not “approve” vehicles for passenger safety in the manner described by the Space Frontier Foundation. It doesn’t even have the legal authority to do that. Congress recognized that suborbital vehicles are not sufficiently mature for aircraft-like safety approval (or certification, to use the correct regulatory term). Instead of a certification regime, Congress created a licensing regime that protects uninvolved third parties from spacecraft accidents while allowing spaceflight participants to accept the responsibility for flight risks under the doctrine of “informed consent.”

This licensing regime was the result of a long series of negotiations over a period of years. The Space Frontier Foundation was actually involved in the process. The current leaders of the SFF appear to be unaware of these facts. Stating that the FAA will “approve” vehicle designs for passenger safety, the Foundation threatens to undo years of hard work by many dedicated individuals. This result is surely unintended, but intent does not matter. Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

James Muncy, head of the policy consulting firm PoliSpace and founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, told us, “I have read those statements, and they are embarrassing.”

The statements on the SFF website appear to be the work of the Foundation’s “education director,” a former elementary school teacher, who is overseeing the Foundation’s NASA-funded Space Medicine and Human Factors workshops. That means dozens of high-school teachers will “learn” erroneous information like this, which they will in turn disseminate to hundreds of students – at taxpayer’s expense. Worse still, the Foundation claims to be running an astronaut teacher training program (although it has not purchased any flights for teachers or raised any money to purchase flights). The Foundation’s “astronaut training program” is overseen by the same education director.

It’s not surprising that the Space Frontier Foundation fails to vet its public statements for technical accuracy. The SFF has no safety culture. There is no one on its board of directors with operational experience in commercial or military aviation or spaceflight, nor is there any board member with aerospace medicine and safety experience. The board chairman is a New York real-estate developer. Quite possibly, there is no one who even understands the need for technical review.

Uninformed statements like these, coming from an organization that promotes itself as “the leader in New Space,” are more than embarrassing. By setting unrealistic expectations in the minds of the public, they threaten to damage the entire commercial-space industry. False statements about safety and FAA certification could a create a climate of misinformation, which space transportation providers will have to spend time and money to correct. It’s always harder to correct mistakes than it is to make them, especially when the mistaken knowledge becomes widespread. Such statements might also be used against space transportation providers in court, if and when an accident occurs.

To make matters worse, the Space Frontier Foundation recently received $100,000 from NASA to runs its commercial-space business plan competition. That seeming NASA endorsement might be viewed as lending credibility to the Foundation’s statements about commercial space. If investors come to believe the Foundation’s public statements and expect  commercial spacecraft to be flight-tested thousands of times and as safe as commercial airlines, it will harm the investment chances of legitimate commercial space companies that cannot meet those exaggerated expectations. (On the other hand, it might help scam operators who will not hesitate to make exaggerated claims.)

Watson had the opportunity to correct the misinformation being circulated by the Foundation. Instead, he added to it with his over-the-top Shuttle commentary. Watson’s unwarranted and uninformed Shuttle-bashing is especially strange when you consider how heavily the SFF depends on NASA, which operated the Shuttle for over 30 years. Over 90% of the Foundation’s budget comes from NASA funding, in-kind donations, or expensive parties and conferences held at NASA facilities. This dependency on NASA funding will surely increase in the future since the Foundation’s chairman recently went out of hhis way to alienate the organization’s largest private donor.

The Space Shuttle was far from perfect, and it never came close to living up to its original goals. There’s plenty of room for warranted, thoughtful criticism (although, criticizing the Shuttle at this time seems like pointless Monday-morning quarterbacking). Unfortunately, Watson’s criticism was neither warranted nor thoughtful.

We can only hope that the NASA managers responsible for the SFF’s funding will take note of where their money is going and reign in the rabid chihuahuas.

Written by Astro1 on April 22nd, 2012 , Space Medicine and Safety

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