How Commercial Spaceflight is Propelled by Safety Standards
Few things embody the power of modern technology more than space exploration. From the iconic footage of the first walk on the Moon to the televised spectacles of Space Shuttle launches, the journey to the stars represents the potential of humankind to push to greater heights.
Traveling to space – one of the harshest environments we’ve ever encountered – also provokes questions about safety. Spaceflight technology has seen frequent leaps forward, driven by intense periods of innovation, meaning that conditions are rapidly evolving. Today, spaceflight is witnessing a new period of growth, this time driven by commercial spaceflight companies. Standards are playing a vital role as people work to define what the future of space travel will look like.
The New Space Age
After the 1990s, space exploration began to fade from the public eye – something seen in the 2004 decision to retire the Space Shuttle program due to concerns about safety and cost. But recent years have witnessed the ferocious reemergence of an interest in space technology, prompting a January 2023 Washington Post editorial to declare that a “new space age” was upon us.
Many of the current drivers of the era are historic national entities such as the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA). However, the new space age is also being shaped by the commercial spaceflight industry. Commercial developers are excited about this moment, seeing an opportunity to reignite the conquest of space. Making clear that the feeling was mutual, Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight for NASA, explained in a 2023 article, “NASA is a significant enabler of this change – what I call the commercial spaceflight revolution.”
Read more: Spaceflight Standards for a New Era
Commercial spaceflight is commonly associated with space tourism, which picked up even more steam in 2023. However, commercial spaceflight companies intend to develop a wider range of use cases. NASA has partnered with commercial provider SpaceX for a planned 2025 mission to return a human crew to the Moon’s surface. There are several other current or potential applications in sight, including satellite launches to low earth orbit (LEO) for the purposes of research and manufacture. In the long run, some believe spaceflight has the potential to see LEO populated by a growing number of workers, researchers, and other individuals.
The current moment is defined by a great deal of discussion about how to proceed, as well as considerable research and thinking about how to do so safely. According to Christopher Allison, senior government relations manager at Sierra Space, the industry is in a period of learning and growth.
“The commercial space industry is still developing,” Allison says. “It is far from a routine activity currently and will take several more years to get there. We are seeing a tremendous amount of innovation from companies across the industry, so there is much to be learned. As this learning occurs, ASTM will be a central point of industry collaboration on best practices and developing these consensus standards to continuously promote safety across the industry. I predict we will see growth in the frequency of operations occurring moving forward, as well as significant diversity in those operations, bound by a common thread of safety.”
Currently, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) regulates commercial spaceflight as it affects public safety – protecting the public on the ground from hazards generated by launches. However, there is a current legislative moratorium on regulations related to occupant safety, passed in 2004 to address the frequent shifts in spaceflight technology.
As a result, standards developed by organizations such as ASTM International are advancing conversations about spaceflight. According to Mercedes McPhee, chair of ASTM’s subcommittee on occupant safety (F47.01), standards are important for building mutual understanding and shared language among developers.
“Human spaceflight is the largest safety concern for the commercial spaceflight committee,” McPhee says. “It really is the core of our standards work. From an industry perspective, everyone wants it to go perfectly, and standards are the method of ensuring that right now. Occupant safety standards creation has been a very productive method of normalization because every company has its own human spaceflight safety methods. Occupant safety standards are important to unify human spaceflight safety practices across the industry, without stifling innovation for commercial space companies.”
Interview: Michael López-Alegría on the Return to Space
This sentiment is echoed by Allison, who explains that the novelty of commercial spaceflight creates a need for the industry to come together. “The standards being developed within ASTM pull the best practices together from across industry participants and experts. The reality is that much of commercial spaceflight is novel and not yet routine, so having this forum where the leading experts and their companies can exchange approaches and come to consensus makes the whole of industry better and safer.”
ASTM formed its committee on commercial spaceflight (F47) in 2016 to respond to the increased privatization and commercialization of spaceflight. Many of the committee’s standards have worked to establish a baseline for the industry as it grows. The committee has tackled issues such as failure tolerance for occupant safety, training of personnel, and integration into air traffic management.
When it comes to occupant safety, even basic word definitions are crucial; as committee chair Michael López-Alegría explained in a 2019 article, “Words matter, as they say, and in commercial spaceflight there are a lot of words that have to be precisely defined…. There needs to be a very well-defined, common understanding of what each word means.”
A Future in Space
McPhee echoes López-Alegría’s sentiments, saying that laying a good foundation is key: “We’re making a lot of baseline standards. We're being proactive. Industry-wide consensus rules of the road are really important. You can know that because everyone is working on these together, all the companies across the industry, everyone is applying these standards equally. Everyone knows that everyone else is following the rules of the road.”
As the process of development and deliberation continues, the future is up in the air, so to speak. There are many exciting possibilities and frequent discoveries, matched by the standards community’s interest in prioritizing safety as that future moves closer to reality.
JP Ervin is content editor for ASTM International.