NASA concerned about SpaceX’s rocket fueling practice

With SpaceX facing a setback with an explosion of its rockets during a launch, its fueling strategy has come under scrutiny.

The Wall Street Journal has obtained a letter written by NASA, which showed that the agency’s International Space station committee has had continued safety concerns vis-à-vis SpaceX’s planned fuel strategy.

While SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets require that it be filled up with fuel while the crew is onboard, since the super-cooled fuel is filled 30 minutes before takeoff, the practice goes against the very grain of “50 years” of booster safety practices around the world.

The issue had been raised by the committee with officials from NASA just days before SpaceX Launchpad got destroyed by an explosion during takeoff. They haven’t heard anything for weeks after that.

This is not to say that SpaceX ignored their concerns: as per SpaceX, they have worked with NASA on a “detailed analysis” of every potential danger for the past year and a half. In fact a NASA board approved their safety concerns in July this year.

Following the investigation after the explosion, engineers from SpaceX have “continued work ahead” to show that controls and systems are in place and as and when necessary, they can be tweaked for further improvements.

At the moment, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is essentially banking on its Crew Dragon launch abort system to rescue its astronauts in case there is a risk of failure during the fueling process.

NASA has stated it has a “rigorous review process” for fueling crewed Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX’s investigation into the cause of the explosion will play a part in that review. It went on to clarify that its advisory panel is its main independent advisor for commercial spaceflights.

Question is, will the concerns raised by NASA’s independent advisors play havoc with SpaceX’s plans? Unlikely, since the company has a solid history of improving the reliability of its rockets.

However, SpaceX will have to demonstrate that a different fueling method isn’t necessarily more risky than its current practice. Until it has a rock solid record of sending people to space, those fears may continue to linger.

For the record, it has clarified, saying,

“SpaceX has designed a reliable fueling and launch process that minimizes the duration and number of personnel exposed to the hazards of launching a rocket. As part of this process, the crew will safely board the Crew Dragon, ground personnel will depart, propellants will be carefully loaded over a short period, and then the vehicle will launch. During this time the Crew Dragon launch abort system will be enabled. Over the last year and a half, NASA and SpaceX have performed a detailed analysis of all potential hazards with this process. The hazard report documenting the controls was approved by the NASA’s Safety Technical Review Board in July 2016. As with all hazard analyses across the entire system and operations, controls against those hazards have been identified, and will be implemented and carefully verified prior to certification. There will be continued work ahead to show that all of these controls are in place for crewed operations and that the verifications meet NASA requirements. These analyses and controls will be carefully evaluated in light of all data and corrective actions resulting from the anomaly investigation. As needed, any additional controls will be put in place to ensure crew safety, from the moment the astronauts reach the pad, through fueling, launch, and spaceflight, and until they are brought safely home.”

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