Spaceflight Standards for a New Era

Commercial spaceflight is expanding, and standards can help build a world without boundaries.
JP Ervin

In the fantastic universe of Star Wars, space travel comes off looking like a fairly simple affair. While Captain Han Solo quips that jetting across the universe “isn’t like dusting crops,” a viewer would be forgiven for reaching a different conclusion.

In the films, medical emergencies are easily resolved with a quick float in a mysterious blue substance, and spaceports mostly appear to be a series of lounges and luxury hotel suites – not a functioning facility for launching into one of the harshest environments known to humankind.

Though a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” makes for one of the more iconic lines in science fiction, it turns out to be somewhat unhelpful as an actual description of a spaceport. Here on Earth, the process leading to a successful trip into space is much more complicated.

Enter ASTM International’s committee on commercial spaceflight (F47), which formed in 2016 to develop standards for a new era of space travel. Among other standards, the committee has been at work on two items, a new classification for spaceport descriptions and a proposed standard focused on medical qualifications. Both standards are helping to advance the conversation about how to explore space in a safer way.

Medicine in Space

In the first years of the Space Age, the development of space technology was largely driven by national and intergovernmental organizations. However, the twenty-first century reignited interest in space travel, prompting some to characterize our moment as a “New Space Age.” Commercial spaceflight has been one of the central drivers of this era, with an expansion of the volume and the types of services provided by private companies.

The New Space Age holds exciting prospects, ones that have the potential to significantly further space exploration. The era also prompts new questions about safety and effectiveness. As a result, industry professionals and experts have prioritized research and careful deliberation, with standards playing a central role in these discussions.

One fundamental question has to do with spaceflight participants themselves. The proposed guide for medical qualifications for suborbital vehicle spaceflight participants (WK76057) would offer a set of passenger-acceptance guidelines that would help companies as they approve candidates for spaceflight.

Dr. Michael Harrison, chief medical officer at Axiom Space and F47 member, notes that the standard grew out of years of effort and an impressive degree of collaboration across the industry to approach the issue of medical qualification. Harrison also says the standard has the potential to be pivotal for the future, especially as the industry looks to expand the length and depth of missions.

“The standard represents the first effort of the industry to come together and develop what the standards are going to be for space flight participants as we do suborbital flights with humans through a commercial provider,” Harrison explains. “There are a number of commercial providers that are providing these services now, and it is going to form the framework for how we as an industry are going to start standardizing orbital missions when we start going up for longer and deeper into space.”

Suborbital flights are those in which a craft does not complete an orbital revolution of the Earth. In the future, orbital flights – which place a craft on a trajectory where it could remain in space for at least one orbit – have the potential to extend a person’s trip by hours, days, or even months.

In addition to these aspects, the industry needs to consider who conducts evaluations, given that an increasingly international space industry crosses national borders and includes professionals trained under different educational systems – and certified under different rules.

Harrison explains that risk assessment is the name of the game for medical evaluation. A person’s health conditions present lower or higher degrees of risk for decompensation and adverse health consequences during a journey, with those risks potentially becoming exaggerated by myriad circumstances along the way. Extended trips have the potential to increase risk, but Harrison adds that even bringing along a basic medical device is no simple task.

“You have to flight certify that particular device and make sure that it will not cause issues; that it does not have large power requirements; it is not some big heavy device that may become a projectile unless it’s secured properly inside the cabin; it will function in Zero-G or microgravity; it is not highly sensitive to changes in radiation as you leave Earth’s atmosphere. What seems like a very easy solution here on Earth isn’t necessarily easy for something as complex as space flight.”

Given the nuances of space travel and the high stakes, standards like WK76057 are valuable for establishing practices and guiding the consideration of essential details. Discussions today may be crucial as the industry develops.

“The next 10 years are going to be very exciting to be involved in commercial space flight,” Harrison says. “You’re going to see rapid expansion. The whole point of a standard is to protect the paying customer and the general population. It was nice to see that everybody came to the table. Everyone seemed to have the same goal, which was to make this a safe and sustainable industry and to come up with a document that would provide the support to do that.”

Spaceports for a New Era

Spaceports also possess a level of complexity and care that makes standardization crucial. While many people might have a uniform image of spaceports in their heads – likely shaped by footage of spectacular Apollo or Space Shuttle launches – the nuances of spaceports are quite intricate.

Spaceports are distinguished in terms of the types of launch systems they allow, especially whether spacecraft can take off using vertical launch systems, horizontal launch systems, or either system. They are further defined by other factors, ranging in scope from whether they can facilitate orbital and/or suborbital vehicles to what fuel types are supported and which bird-deterrence systems are in place. Ultimately, the viability of a potential launch is determined not only by facilities themselves but also the surrounding environment and locality of a site.

“Most spaceports in the world are very bespoke,” explains Andrew A. Nelson, vice president - aerospace for RS&H and vice chair of F47. “They are not the same as airports, where there have been over a hundred years of operations. What you find is that some of the first spaceports did things their own way. They might have been doing it for the last 40, 50, or 60 years, such as at Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg. But there really wasn’t a common way of doing things.”

In addition to the actual technical components of a spaceport, a second issue presents its own challenges: how to effectively communicate about a spaceport to potential customers and the general public.

A recent standard, classification for descriptions of spaceport capabilities (F3610), provides guidance for the how and what of characterizing a given spaceport. The new classification lists a broad spectrum of potential elements, ranging from basic contact information and technical capabilities to site features, testing and safety systems, applicable environmental regulations, and even local cultural factors that may potentially be relevant to a launch.

For Mark Greby, owner of Greby Space Services and member-at-large for F47, one of the key functions of F3610 is to facilitate consideration of information that may be valuable to potential customers or the public, as well as to make this information available in a more accessible format.

“This standard helps us consolidate information in one place,” Greby says. “It’s simpler for the customers and public since it gives them a place to go to for research and to find that research in a semi-common format. That in turn reduces time and allows for people to have enough information so that they can be informed or have an intelligent conversation about what they would like to do.”

Greby also explains the value of building flexibility into the standard. Commercial spaceflight is a rapidly developing industry, and spaceports have the discretion to communicate as much or as little as they choose to.

According to Greby, “If a spaceport feels uncomfortable talking about something, they don’t have to. Say it’s security systems or naming a customer. The standard provides protection for information that could be considered secret or proprietary.”

Whether it concerns capabilities or communication practices, both Greby and Nelson see increased standardization as a means of helping the commercial spaceflight industry grow.

As Nelson characterizes it: “When you have the ability to launch from six or eight different sites, then you take hurricanes, cyberattacks, and a variety of other things off the table, so that you can actually launch your rockets when you want and where you want. But in order to do that, you have to be able to make sure the consumables are there, that you can pump the consumables into the rockets, and that sort of thing. These are some of the fundamentals of how you get very fast turnaround and a resilient operational system to perform a responsive launch.”

Nelson also says that growth comes from bringing the industry together to find solutions.

“We’re hitting our stride and people realize we really need this. The customer is demanding it, and people see a market. Markets are enabled by standards, and markets grow bigger and faster with standards in place. People are getting that message.”


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