Lack of transparency may put commercial space program at risk

Lack of transparency may put commercial space program at risk
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American astronauts are finally scheduled to return to Earth orbit in an American spacecraft on an American rocket from American soil this year for the first time since the Space Shuttle’s last flight in 2011. It is especially meaningful that American astronauts will return to space in a commercially built spacecraft. We are witnessing the birth of private space travel in a new era when pioneering entrepreneurs will open frontiers of discovery alongside NASA’s deep space missions. 

Private human space travel promises extraordinary opportunities for scientific discoveries and for harvesting the solar system’s vast resources for fuel, water, energy and deep space manufacturing. The possibilities for private space flight are unlimited, and tremendously exciting, but right now, at the start of this new endeavor, we must be absolutely certain that the private sector is bound by the same ironclad planetary protection and human safety guidelines that have made NASA robotic missions so successful and that have protected NASA astronauts so well for so many successful missions.

Essential preconditions to the success of NASA’s human spaceflight program are absolute transparency and openness to the American taxpayers. Another essential precondition has been NASA’s starting assumption on each human space flight that it is not safe to fly, and that the mission will not take off until flight engineers have proven with absolute certainty that the rocket and the spacecraft are safe to fly.

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As one of NASA’s most ardent advocates in Congress for 18 years and as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds our space program for four years, I worked with all of my colleagues to restore NASA funding to levels not seen since the Apollo program. NASA has always enjoyed broad bipartisan support, and this is reflected in this year’s appropriations process. 

As we move into this promising new era for space exploration, I am deeply concerned to see the secrecy surrounding the launchpad explosion that destroyed SpaceX’s Dragon capsule during an unmanned test at Cape Canaveral. In addition, it was recently revealed that a critical parachute failure occurred during a Dragon capsule test in April. This was kept secret from the public. This mishap is especially distressing given that NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel specifically directed that parachute designs be finalized and proven before test flights occur.

The safety of our astronauts depends on rigorous testing in an absolutely open and transparent way. Taxpayers deserve the truth to ensure that their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent wisely, and most importantly will protect the lives of our astronauts.

Congress, the White House and the public must insist that bright sunlight shine into every corner of every entity, public and private, that uses tax dollars to carry American astronauts out into the limitless and merciless depths of space. American space pioneers will go farther and faster and learn far more than humans ever have before, but only if we protect each astronaut’s life with zealous care.

As Americans, we must accept nothing less.

John Culberson served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2019, representing Texas's 7th Congressional District. He was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee for Commerce, Justice, Science and NASA from 2015 to 2019, and is currently a member in the Government and Public Affairs Practice Group at international law firm Clark Hill PLC, which represents the United Launch Alliance.