Is It Safe?

The first company with a plan—and a rocket—to send humans to orbit answers the existential question.

The Falcon 9 shown during ground tests at Cape Canaveral, Florida, last January. (NASA)
Air & Space Magazine

In a hulking industrial building next to Hawthorne Municipal Airport on the west side of Los Angeles, a machine called the Mazak AJV-60 fabricates what may well be the next rocket and capsule to carry people into space. Other machines whir and grind in the background, part of the assembly line that upstart company SpaceX—officially Space Exploration Technologies—has built in the shadow of nearby aerospace giants such as Northrop Grumman and Boeing. In the next few years, SpaceX will place the capsule, Dragon, atop its Falcon 9 rocket and send it into space carrying cargo and, the company hopes, NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

A mockup of Dragon sits on SpaceX's main assembly floor, a short walk from an open dining area where employees help themselves to free snacks and freshly brewed coffee. Built by Northrop in 1966, the building was used most recently to assemble Boeing 747 fuselages.

Dragon looks like a larger, slimmer version of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules that once lofted Americans into space. But if SpaceX is going to launch astronauts, it will have to become the first private company to meet a little-known set of NASA safety standards, NPR 8705.2B, "Human-Rating Requirements for Space Systems." It's NASA's guidebook for getting people to space, and was revised after the agency's last manned space system, the space shuttle, turned out to be less safe than many had expected.

NASA broadly defines human rating as a design process. Spacecraft with humans aboard must offer them enough control to get out of bad situations, and to take advantage of ways to make the flight a success. A crew must have a means to recover from all sorts of emergencies, from launch pad to orbit.

The guidelines express a philosophy: "Above all, human rating is more than a set of requirements, a process or a certification," say the new standards, adopted last year. Wilson Harkins, mission support director in NASA's Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, says human rating is not so much a sheet of paper with boxes to check as it is an attitude. "It involves a mindset, instilled by leadership," he says, "where each person feels personally responsible for their piece of the design and for the safety of the crew."

Concerns about safety are driving NASA's plans to retire the space shuttle next year. The agency's successor program, Constellation, includes a rocket, Ares I, and capsule, Orion, that won't be ready until 2015 at the earliest. During the five-year gap, NASA's alternative is to buy seats on Russia's Soyuz capsule. But SpaceX's Dragon, developed in part with NASA money, may offer a homebuilt, economical alternative. The company plans to stick to a budget that would make its seats a bargain at no more than $15 million each—those on the Soyuz capsule now cost between $35 million and $45 million. So, SpaceX will test a key question: Is it possible to make a rocket safe enough for humans and cheaper than its predecessors?

The self-assured founder of this enterprise is Elon Musk, 37, who raked in millions starting PayPal and selling it to eBay. Musk recalls riding as a kid in the front seat of a car without a seat belt. "If there would have been an accident I would have been 100 feet down the road," he says, chuckling. Society has grown less tolerant of risk, he says. "It wouldn't be acceptable today to put someone on an Atlas or a Titan," intercontinental ballistic missiles converted into launch vehicles for NASA's early astronauts.

Author Andrew Smith writes in his book, Moondust, about his conversation with Rene Carpenter, who was married to Scott Carpenter at the time he became the second American in orbit. "You know, I was on the beach with Jo Schirra [wife of astronaut Walter Schirra] for the last Atlas test firing," she says, "and it blew up right in front of us! It was terrifying, but there was a fatalism among the wives, a lot of gallows humor. You'd say 'Oh, thank God the monkey wasn't in that one.' "

With degrees in economics and physics, Musk has thought plenty about making launch vehicles safe. He considers interplanetary travel one of the most important steps in the evolution of life, which he reasons is likelier to last if it exists beyond Earth. "If the future is one where we're forever stuck on Earth, that just seems really depressing to me," he says. He sits in a corner cubicle of the SpaceX building, pondering each question during an interview. Model rockets, airplanes, and robots crowd the corners of his desk. "Exploration for the purpose of gaining knowledge is obviously a worthwhile endeavor, but it is important to remember that we're just discovering what's already there. Scientists, and I count myself partly as one, sometimes forget that science is only relevant if humanity continues to survive." Musk says he wouldn't put anyone on his rocket if he didn't think it was safe enough to fly his friends and himself.

That was particularly relevant in October 2008, just after SpaceX sent Falcon 1, its first and smallest rocket, into orbit. This followed three launches that ended with problems such as the rocket tumbling out of control. "I thought getting to orbit would be tough, but it was tougher than tough," Musk says.

About Michael Milstein

Michael Milstein is a freelance writer who specializes in science. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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