Certified Safe

Planning to operate a taxi service for NASA astronauts? Here’s what’s required.

The Sierra Nevada Corporation's "Dream Chaser" is one possible contender for NASA's future crew transport to the space station. (Sierra Nevada Corp.)

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Mango: The design can be finalized; now you go to certification. And then you work through certification the next couple years. Anyway, that design process will conclude towards the end of the contract. And that's when we will sign up to a certification plan with the contractor.

Chaikin: And actually build vehicles.

Mango: At that point we will begin to build hardware and to test hardware.

Chaikin: [SpaceX CEO] Elon Musk says he thinks he'll be able to work with NASA to accomplish a safe and reliable system. But he says his worry is that the existing contract has language that gives NASA the right to make changes to the design requirements without adjusting the fee after work has already begun. He compares it to hiring a contractor to build a two-bedroom house, and after they’ve started saying, no, I want a four-bedroom house without adjusting the fee. And obviously, he says, that's not a workable situation. How do you address that concern?

Mango: What I’ve told all of industry is that if NASA changes the requirements, then we've got to bring dollars to the table to deal with that change of requirements.

Chaikin: Does that statement apply to the entire process, from the start to the completion of the vehicles?

Mango: That process does go throughout the entire timeframe of the program, basically. However I would also say that IDC only goes to critical design and probably some testing thereafter; it does not go all the way to a certified system. So there will be another contract mechanism for that, and it'll be like part two. And part two will have the same rules. If we change our requirements then we have to bring dollars to the table.

Chaikin: There is a lot of skepticism about whether commercial companies, particularly the new ones, can accomplish reliable, safe, and cost-effective spaceflight. There's even resistance to letting them try. Can you accomplish what you're trying to do with this program in spite of the skepticism and resistance that's out there?

Mango: Well, we are doing our best to do that. And I would say that a lot of important things that have happened in the country, or in the world for that matter, have happened despite criticism and despite folks who want to slow it down or not have it happen at all.

The members of my team are not folks that we hired from industry yesterday. Most everyone on the team has either worked space shuttle, like myself, Constellation, like myself, test flying, like some of the folks—Brent Jett who's an astronaut and a very good test pilot is on the team—and then folks from the space station program. We also have other folks on the program that have launched Atlases and Deltas and been part of the launch services program for many years as well.

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