Friday, January 28, 2011

New spaceships should be safer than the space shuttle

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. January 28 was the 25th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle explosion and it has space enthusiasts 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.


  1. After more than a quarter century as the American space program of the three remaining space shuttle orbiters, Discovery, Atlantis and occupation, should be retired in mid-2011. It is a source of controversy for some, who insist that America's status as a leader in space exploration can be very crippled, because there is no substitute nominate its fleet, which is the next generation space exploration vehicle, four or five years.
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