NASA Has Concerns Over How Safe SpaceX Rocket Technology is for Astronauts

NASA advisors have raised concerns about SpaceX's propellant loading system, saying it could put lives at risk.

NASA advisors and Congress have safety concerns about SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket propellant system. SpaceX’s engineers use a fuelling system that keeps the propellant at super cold temperatures so that it is compressed as possible, this allows them to pack a larger amount of fuel into the tanks. 

This is a risky method according to some safety observers. To keep the propellant at these super low temperatures, it needs to be loaded at the last moments before take-off, when astronauts are on board. 

'Load-and-Go' too risky says NASA

A spark or accident during this procedure, known as load-and-go puts those astronauts' lives at risk. These safety concerns became a reality in September 2016, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blew up while it was being fueled ahead of an engine test. 

Luckily no one was hurt during the incident but the payload aboard the rocket, a multimillion-dollar satellite, was lost. NASA safety experts were urged to ask the question what if there had been astronauts were on board? 

Tensions are high between the USA’s official space agency and the risky startup, spearheaded by Elon Musk. A former NASA employee said the ‘load-and-go’ procedure is not used by NASA because "we never could get comfortable with the safety risks that you would take with that approach. When you're loading densified propellants, it is not an inherently stable situation." 

Many in the emerging private space exploration industry accuse NASA of being safety paranoid after its own accidents involving space shuttles caused the deaths of 14 astronauts. 

SpaceX pushing the envelope by ignoring tradition

SpaceX has said they have been only been able to achieve their incredible breakthroughs because of their freedom to ignore traditional ideas and technologies. Greg Autry, a business professor at the University of Southern California, said the notion of load-and-go caused friction when he was working as part of Trump's NASA transition team. 

"NASA is supposed to be a risk-taking organization," he said. "But every time we would mention accepting risk in human spaceflight, the NASA people would say, 'But, oh, you have to remember the scar tissue' — and they were talking about the two shuttle disasters. They seemed to have become victims of the past and unwilling to try anything new, because of that scar tissue." 

Others close to the agency have also shared concerns that it is getting too caught up in safety bureaucracy. The former acting NASA administrator, Robert Lightfoot, spoke recently urging NASA to find some of the youthful spirit that it previously held that allowed them to send men to the moon during the Apollo era. 

"I worry, to be perfectly honest, if we would have ever launched Apollo in our environment here today," he said during a recent speech at the Space Symposium, "if Buzz [Aldrin] and Neil [Armstrong] would have ever been able to go to the moon in the risk environment we have today." 

NASA still hurting from Columbia 

NASA requires space explorations companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to ensure the chance of death during a mission is no greater than 1 in every 270 flights. NASA can ask this of the space agencies because it has entered agreements with them to shuttle its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). 

NASA Has Concerns Over How Safe SpaceX Rocket Technology is for Astronauts
Source: NASA

NASA has been paying Russia to ferry its astronauts to the ISS since its own manned shuttle missions were halted after the Columbia shuttle disaster. Russia was charging the U.S. around $81.9 million for a seat in 2015 so NASA has looked for local alternatives. 

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Both SpaceX and Boeing have been awarded $6.8 billion in contracts to deliver astronauts to the ISS on behalf of NASA. But both companies have faced serious delays and setbacks. 

Despite SpaceX's good record of 18 successful launches last year, it did lose two of its Falcon 9 rockets in explosions and has never attempted flying humans. Both NASA and SpaceX have said they are dedicated to coming to an agreement that satisfies both partners and safety gets astronauts into space off American soil.