Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on March 1, 2018.

The Expertise Gap

Knowledge assets, both human and in the form of government standards, may be insufficient for the emerging commercial space industry


WHILE THE FAA AND NASA may have experts available to assess safety at spaceports, Jason Scott, NASA’s program manager for fire protection, is worried that the local AHJs, fire marshals, and emergency responders tasked with overseeing the project and then regulating its ongoing operation may not. While the proposed Spaceport Camden in Georgia has found third-party experts, those can be in short supply, said Scott, who also chairs the group that maintains NASA’s own facility fire protection standard.

Scott and others told me that, in at least one case, AHJs have turned to the prospective spaceport users to provide them with guidance about what requirements their proposed facility should have. Ideally, that kind of guidance should come from third-party experts, they said. Even then, because of a lack of standards, there could be conflicting opinion on the best safety designs and strategies.

While the FAA process demands spaceport applicants to craft a safety plan, there is not consensus on how to answer some of the difficult safety questions it poses. AHJs and applicants, therefore, are left to piece together a variety of different and sometimes conflicting standards in order to make their proposal.

“If our strategy is to try and create economic growth in commercial spaceports, I’m not sure that approach works,” Scott told me. “We need some guidance that is nationally recognized and much more explicit in how we think we reach that reasonable level of safety.”

In its examination of the existing spaceport code and standard landscape for the FPRF, the Maryland team came to a similar conclusion. While it determined that a lot of information does already exist that covers almost every hazard spaceports present, the information is scattered across a patchwork of federal departments and private organizations such as the FAA, NASA, the Air Force, Department of Defense, NFPA, and others, making it difficult for AHJs to access and cobble together. More problematic, it’s not always clear how to apply the standards together, or which apply for what kind of facilities.

Even existing federal spaceports and flight facilities often differ in layout, such as how far apart fuel tanks and launch pads are, depending on which agency built them and when, Scott said, and the various standards often reflect those differences. Which standards take precedence if there is a conflict may be unclear to AHJs and consultants.

“One of the biggest issues seems to be that there is a large reliance on AHJs with federal standards, but those existing standards are in some ways customized for the government’s unique facilities with unique needs ... how to pick and choose how and where to apply the standards is difficult,” said Gollner, the report’s co-author. “That could be very hard for a commercial spaceport to [replicate], especially if it doesn’t have the type of infrastructure of a NASA launch facility or have experts on hand all the time.”

Operational and design differences between commercial spaceports and government-built facilities could also make government codes less than an ideal fit. For one, commercial spaceports serve a distinctly different clientele and purpose—to cheaply and efficiently get payloads into space to maximize profitability—than a NASA facility. The U.S. government, which is its own insurer, is highly risk-averse and therefore has extraordinarily high safety thresholds in its standards, which may be too stringent to be economically viable for private industry, Scott contends.

Commercial and government spaceport facilities may also have other slight but meaningful differences that could impact safety best practices. If NASA’s famed Kennedy Space Center in Florida is the spaceport equivalent of New York’s JFK airport, most commercial spaceports today are something akin to a municipal airport upstate. They aren’t huge industrial goliaths, but generally barebones and functional, usually built in rural, sometimes outright desolate areas. The Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska, for instance, consists of a single road, two outbuildings and a launch pad. The proposed Spaceport Camden will be similar, tucked into 4,000 acres of Georgia woods and consisting of a single launch pad and just three outbuildings. As a result, the resources available may not be at the level of a government facility, nor will the launch volume, staffing, or perhaps even firefighting capability or techniques.

In the case of a fire or explosion, NASA’s suppression strategy is typically to step back and let all the fuel burn out on its own, often resulting in a total loss of expensive equipment and launch infrastructure, Scott said. Firefighters are used only for clean up and for putting out any remaining burning debris once the fuels are exhausted.

“That strategy obviously could create some significant issues as we move into more commercial facilities, because if your scenario is you’re going to lose the entire facility every time you have a fire that is problematic from business standpoint—but that is generally how it has been at NASA,” Scott said.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: NASA