A Call to Action from Kennedy

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

This week, I visited NASA, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Space-X at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. KSC has been a leader in space exploration for over 50 years. The Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle programs took off from there, as did the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Rover project, and New Horizons, the first spacecraft to visit Pluto.

To visit Launch Complex 39A and stand where the Apollo and Space Shuttle astronauts once stood before they launched into space was humbling, and as I watched Space-X’s Transporter-5 launch and land from the balcony of Operation Support Building 2 and the return of Boeing’s Starliner Spacecraft virtually, I was reminded of how important it is that we learn from the past as we advance into our future.

Exactly sixty-one years earlier, to the day, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and laid out a truly ambitious goal: landing a man on the Moon. Not just landing a man on the Moon but returning him safely to Earth. He called for national leadership and implored Congress and the country to take a firm and sustained commitment to a new course of action, “a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.” And he demanded that the whole of government, working together as one, dedicate themselves to jumpstarting a future he knew was in the best interests of our country.

The vision that President Kennedy laid out 61 years ago continues to shape our nation and the world. Today, NASA is developing its deep space rocket, the most powerful rocket it has ever built, the Space Launch System (SLS), while commercial space companies transport cargo for the federal government and private businesses to space as well as to the International Space Station (ISS). These companies have also begun transporting passengers.

Commercial spaceflight is a rapidly evolving industry and shows tremendous promise. Over the last decade, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-licensed commercial launches and re-entries have grown tremendously, from 1 licensed launch and 0 licensed re-entries in 2011 to 54 licensed launches and 6 licensed re-entries in 2021. The federal government needs to be prepared for these exciting technological advances. For NTSB, that means ensuring we remain ready if an accident occurs. If the past has taught us anything, it’s not a matter of “if” an accident will occur, it’s a matter of when.

The NTSB has investigated accidents involving space vehicles for over 30 years. In 1986, we participated in the investigation in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; in 1993, we investigated the Orbital Sciences Pegasus accident; we again participated when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry and 7 astronauts died, in 2003; and in 2004, we assisted NASA with the Genesis Sample-Return Capsule crash investigation. More recently, in 2014, we investigated the in-flight explosion of SpaceShip Two.

All this is to say, we aren’t new to commercial space. The fact is NTSB is world renowned for its reputation as the “gold standard” for thorough, fact-based, independent investigations of accidents in all modes of transportation, whether those accidents occur on our roads, railways, waterways, or in our skies. We have been at the forefront of safety and the advancement of new technologies and new ways of moving people and goods for decades. We’re used to new challenges, and we’re ready for them.

The key to our success is our independence. That independence is what sets us apart. We aren’t tasked with exploring space; that’s NASA’s mission. We aren’t tasked with promoting, licensing, or regulating the safety of the commercial space industry; that’s the job of the FAA. Our entire mission is focused on determining what happened when a tragedy occurs, why it happened, and issuing safety recommendations aimed at preventing it from happening again. In other words, our one and only goal is to save lives and prevent the reoccurrence of terrible tragedies.

These past few months, I’ve spent time with our safety partners at FAA and NASA in hopes of ensuring we’re all prepared should tragedy occur. I’ve done this because I believe that the disparate arms of the federal government must work together to ensure the safety and success of this burgeoning industry. The commercial space industry is American innovation at its finest. As a government, we don’t want to get in the way of awe-inspiring technological innovations we once thought unimaginable, but we want to provide guardrails and cooperation, guidance and protection of the public, and we all need to work together as one to make that happen.

Sixty-one years ago, President Kennedy called on us to work together for the best interests of our country. The need for all of us to work together resonates as much today. I call on our safety partners at NASA, at FAA, at the Departments of Commerce and Defense to work with us and the stakeholders who I visited this week, among others, to ensure that safety remains a top priority alongside commercial space innovation.

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