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  FAA: Pressure suits on commercial spaceflights

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Author Topic:   FAA: Pressure suits on commercial spaceflights
328KF
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Registered: Apr 2008

posted 11-04-2013 04:01 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for 328KF   Click Here to Email 328KF     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Doug Messier over at Parabolic Arc has written an overview of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's new guidelines for commercial spaceflight safety. Unbelievably, the Feds have decided not to endorse the use of pressure suits on these vehicles.

I can certainly appreciate the agency's desire to take as much of a "hands off" approach in order to help the industry get started, but seems this to me to be the polar opposite of common sense. While these "established practices" are not technically hard rules, this document will no doubt be the foundation of future lawmaking.

It's hard to believe, given the history of fatal accidents in manned spaceflight over decades of experience, that the FAA would rationalize this risk as they have here. While they acknowledge that the most dangerous phases of spaceflight are during ascent, entry, and landing, they seem not to realize that the suborbital flight profile is exposed to these phases for almost the entire duration of the trip!

The Feds seem to think that pressure suits might be overly complex to integrate an existing vehicle, and that the risks associated with pressure loss can be engineered out of a potential design. The test pilots who flew SpaceShipOne took a calculated risk in flying without suits, but that in no way makes the same risk acceptable to paying passengers.

I could almost understand their position if we had many years of flight experience behind us on say, SpaceShipTwo, without incident. But I believe there are many unknowns associated with the long-term effects of heating (even at low levels) and flight loads on composite structure. But we don't, and won't for a long time to come.

These ships are essentially plastic and carbon fiber. A popped window or breach in a wheel during entry well could ruin your whole day of sightseeing from space. I'd love to go, but if the operators choose not to provide pressure suits, I might have to show up with my own!

Robert Pearlman
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Posts: 28070
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 11-04-2013 04:53 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Perhaps a good example in this case is Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler, the first two climbers to summit Mount Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen. As PBS NOVA recounts, the climbing and medical communities looked poorly upon the two men's plan:
They were labeled "lunatics," who were placing themselves at risk for severe brain damage. The physiological demands of climbing Everest had been studied on previous expeditions, and found to be extreme; in 1960-61, tests conducted on members of an expedition led by Sir Edmund Hillary concluded that oxygen levels at the summit of Mt. Everest were only enough to support a body at rest — and that the oxygen demands of a climber in motion would certainly be too great.
Despite their critics, Messner and Habeler pressed on, risking their lives for the pursuit of the adventure.

Those who choose to climb aboard a suborbital spacecraft without a pressure suit are making a similar choice. So long as they are made aware of the risks, there is little reason for the FAA to intervene. This is, after all, a voluntary activity.

Besides, if there is a large enough segment of the market that won't fly without a pressure suit, then there will be a business case for providing the suits, regardless of the FAA's position.

328KF
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posted 11-05-2013 11:32 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for 328KF   Click Here to Email 328KF     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I can certainly appreciate the pioneering spirit of those climbers but I think there are major differences between the example and commercial manned spaceflight.

The people buying tickets are, for now, subject to the informed consent laws which require the passenger to be made aware of the risks involved. For the amount of money being spent by each, I'm certain that a reasonable level of personal safety is expected and should be assured. But at some point in the future, the FAA will regulate all of these activities, and they seem to have a strange way of calculating risk and determining what mitigations are needed.

For example, right now if I go fly the owners of a jet at any altitude above 35,000' I can do so without wearing an oxygen mask. But the rules say if the aircraft is chartered, that is, operated under Part 135, one pilot has to wear the mask above that altitude, just in case something goes wrong. Different rules for different passengers.

The FAA is often refferred to as a "tombstone agency", only putting restrictions in place following a disaster. They will eventually be charged with regulating this industry and protecting the "travelling public." It seems that they are content waiting for the accident to happen before acknowledging the risk.

Someday in the future we'll board a spaceplane in our street clothes and fly coast to coast in 30 minutes, but for now we should take every precaution to ensure the business gets off the ground and flourishes.

p51
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Posts: 856
From: Olympia, WA, USA
Registered: Sep 2011

posted 11-05-2013 02:28 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for p51   Click Here to Email p51     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I agree that anyone signing on as a passenger on a commercial space flight is accepting the risks of a horrific death simply by stepping into the thing, but I disagree that anyone truly grasps those risks.

Anyone with this much money probably hasn't dealt with immediate risk of any note other than gambling with their money, at least not recently. People generally accept that if anything is set up and ready to go, it wouldn't be ready if it wasn't working correctly. People can say they're ready for something but generally they aren't. I saw it first hand in the Army, even soliders often didn't 'get' risks even when trained to react to them (such as the solider who was playing with a live hand grenade at a range once, he's probably still doing pushups right now over that).

Commercially, they're missing out on a key marketing aspect that the Russians understood once they started opening up flights on their fighter planes. By having the occupants wear a pressure suit, they get two aspects of a true 'astronaut' experience; they get to show people photos and video of them in a pressure suit, and the carrier could allow the passenger to keep the suit as part of the overall fee for the experience. MIG high flight operators have done the same thing, I know of someone who did that and he has the entire pressure suit mounted on a dummy in the corner of his office.

Robert Pearlman
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Posts: 28070
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 11-05-2013 02:36 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by p51:
Commercially, they're missing out on a key marketing aspect that the Russians understood once they started opening up flights on their fighter planes.
Not necessarily; just as Zero G Corp issues their passengers flight suits, Virgin Galactic (for example) has said it will be issuing a suit of some type to its clients — it just may not be a pressure suit.

The end effect is likely to be the same: the client will proudly display the outfit they wore to space, even if it's not a pressure suit.

mode1charlie
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Posts: 496
From: Honolulu, HI, USA
Registered: Sep 2010

posted 11-05-2013 02:41 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for mode1charlie   Click Here to Email mode1charlie     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Robert Pearlman:
...if there is a large enough segment of the market that won't fly without a pressure suit, then there will be a business case for providing the suits, regardless of the FAA's position.
I think you put your finger on it right there. The pressure will come from the insurance industry — either those providing indemnification for the companies to protect from exposure, or from individual's insurance companies that won't allow them to fly unless they wear pressure suits.

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