A NASA advisory group has warned that new technology in Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets could be extremely dangerous to manned missions.
During development of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the company came up with what they believe is an innovative way to carry more fuel in the rocket by storing propellant at extremely cold temperatures which will shrink its size, meaning more can be carried on the Falcon 9. But, as the Chicago Tribune reports, some space experts are worried about this decision believing that it could be extremely dangerous.
When loading propellant this cold onto a rocket, the only feasible way to load it into the rocket is right before takeoff in a process known as “load-and-go.” This leads to a number of risks according to NASA experts, a single spark or accident could result in a massive explosion. This could pose huge issues for the space exploration company as they plan to launch astronauts into orbit in the very near future. One watchdog group labeled the “load-and-go” process a “potential safety risk,” while a NASA advisory group has warned that the procedure was “contrary to booster safety criteria that have been in place for over 50 years.”
The issue of SpaceX’s fueling techniques was brought to the forefront when one of their Falcon9 rockets exploded in September 2016 during the fueling stage. Luckily no one was hurt but the company did lose a multimillion-dollar satellite. The outcome could have been much worse if the rocket had been transporting astronauts into orbit. Greg Autry, a business professor at the University of Southern California, stated that the load-and-go procedure was a hot-button topic when he served on President Trump’s NASA transition team.
Autry stated: “NASA is supposed to be a risk-taking organization. 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, however, long for the days of risk-taking and danger, such as Robert Lightfoot, the former acting NASA administrator. During a speech at the Space Symposium in April, Lightfoot stated: “I worry, to be perfectly honest, if we would have ever launched Apollo in our environment here today, if Buzz [Aldrin] and Neil [Armstrong] would have ever been able to go to the moon in the risk environment we have today.”
Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president for build and flight reliability, stated that fueling the rockets takes approximately half an hour and said it is a, “relatively quick procedure, and we believe that this exposure time is the shortest and therefore the safest approach.” William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, stated that NASA had yet to decide whether or not they would allow SpaceX to launch a rocket containing human passengers. Gerstenmaier stated that NASA would “make sure that we’re really, really safe to go fly, and the system is ready for crew before we put them on board.”
Lightfoot stated that NASA was in deep talks with SpaceX to decide on the safest course of action: “It’s a matter of having a good risk discussion so that we understand that,” he said. “I would just say that instead of working it in the press, we work in the engineering review boards.”