Why NASA is like British Rail
Well more precisely, the structural changes that the American space program is undergoing are akin to those that the British rail industry under went during the 1980s.
The past of space transportation in the US is fundamentally defined by NASA, a large, government owned, monolithic, monopolistic, vertically integrated organisation. Sound familiar? It ought, the same description could be applied to the United Kingdom’s British Rail of the 1980s.
And the future? Well if the US space transportation industry follows the privatisation route of the United Kingdom’s rail industry then we may see several private space transport operators emerging, all buying vehicles designed and developed by a (probably small) number of dedicated spacecraft building companies. The Virgin Galaxy and Bob Rutan collaboration being a case in point.
In theory NASA’s transport function could, as British Rail was, be supplanted by a trust style infrastructure company (providing, launch sites, telemetry and ground stations), privatised consultancies, space transport operating companies and spacecraft OEM.
But the experience of the UK rail industry also highlights a number of key problem areas in making such a transition.
The first is the question of who is the design authority for the spacecraft. In the days of an ascendent British Rail and NASA, it was very clear who understood both operational and technical requirements and could meaningfully act as the design authority. But when a vehicle is designed by one company to be operated by another and maintained by a third the situation is less clear cut.
This question is important because regulatory responsibility needs to map to practical competency to have any hope of success. In the case of UK rail experience, the regulatory environment did not keep pace with reform. Operating companies were accountable, but in practice the OEMs were the only ones who understood the vehicles!
The second and intertwined problem is who controls the risk.
With an organisation such as NASA or British Rail, for good or ill, there was never any doubt as to who the final arbiter of risk was. However, once operational responsibility separates from design responsibility the issue becomes more difficult.
The traditional aerospace approach has been a comprehensive set of regulatory standards (the FAR/JARs) and a well-defined type certification process imposed upon the OEM prior to any aircraft flying commercially.
However at the moment the nascent commercial space industry has no such set of standards (in fact one FAA report recommended against them) relying instead upon an operational permit process based on a vertically integrated launch operation model (1).
If NASA becomes just a ‘customer’ for space transportation companies (at least to LEO) who has final responsibility for flight risk, and where does the liability lay? What responsibility does the space vehicle designer hold if (for example) the vehicle were to be used as part of another launch system? Say for example a crew transport capsule could potentially be sold (and used by) the ESA on an Ariane launcher as easily as it could on a NASA evolved Shuttle SRB.
Interesting days ahead, for NASA and the US space industry.
1. And is also (for the moment) focused on suborbital human flight operations.