By Ben Iannotta|July/August 2023
Lately, most topics we explore in Aerospace America inevitably go to the fluid and sometimes tense relationships between governments and the companies that drive so much of the innovation in aerospace. Rational discussions are needed over the degree and kind of control that governments should exert in a host of areas, including the planned return of Americans to the moon and the growing desire to introduce radically different aircraft to the market. We view our reporting and opinion pages as an essential part of those discussions.
This issue’s commentary article, “Safety versus innovation: It’s time for a rebalancing,” makes the provocative argument that standards for commercial air safety should be lowered to spark innovation. That sounds drastic, but what if doing so leads to aircraft that slash aviation’s carbon footprint? Regardless of whether you agree with the author’s premise, the argument is presented respectfully and with facts and logic.
Our Q&A with former Qantas pilot Richard de Crespigny offers a more cautious perspective. He and his flight crew managed to save their wounded A380 airliner back in 2010 despite severed wires and damaged computers. He is not a fan of ideas percolating in Europe to permit one pilot aboard large airliners and other crew streamlining steps. “Every critical aircraft system, including the pilots, are duplicated — if not triplicated. That’s why we’re safe,” de Crespigny says.
Turning to space, NASA has placed SpaceX at the center of its plan to return American astronauts to the moon in the Artemis III mission, awarding it a $2.9 billion contract for that mission and $1.5 billion more for the proposed Artemis IV mission. As our story, “Fixing Starship,” points out, NASA in 2019 said the Starship pad at the Cape Canaveral site leased from NASA would have a flame diverter, the protective steel apparatus that Elon Musk decided to launch Starship without in Boca Chica, Texas. Environmental groups contend that during the runup to that April test, FAA did not dig deeply enough into the possible environmental consequences of something going wrong. A group of them in May filed a lawsuit demanding a new and deeper environmental study. If that suit has legs, we may be witnessing the beginning of a resetting of FAA’s relationship with SpaceX and NASA. It’s now largely up to FAA to hold the line against unacceptable risk in the Starship program, given that NASA has so much riding on those rockets to help it achieve the moon landing. NASA has come across as highly protective of its Cape Canaveral site and less so about Boca Chica, given that it did not speak out, at least publicly, about the risks of not having a flame diverter.
On the topic of space communications, NASA also wants to give commercial providers a greater hand in augmenting the Near Space Network, the antennas and satellites that will connect operators and scientists to a growing number of spacecraft in cislunar space. Our story, “Live from the moon in HD,” shows the tension between NASA’s desire to have its needs met and its desire to leverage the commercial world’s knack for going quickly. NASA wants to augment the NSN quickly, but it also insists that the contractors “meet the specific technical acceptability standards” set by the agency.
A better balance needs to be struck between these competing forces, but some tensions might always be inevitable and even desirable.