NASA has reportedly warning SpaceX and Boeing of design safety concerns for their competing launch systems, which could threaten the success of the U.S. space program. The two companies have so far received almost $7 billion from NASA for their efforts.
Reuters reports that ahead of NASA’s first scheduled un-manned test flight as part of the Commercial Crew Program, slated for March 2, the space agency’s safety advisory panel cited four “key risk items” in designs from SpaceX and Boeing. So far, NASA has paid SpaceX $2.6 billion and Boeing $4.2 billion to build rocket and capsule launch systems that aim to send astronauts to the International Space Station for the first time since 2011.
Safety advisors noted that in Boeing’s designs, the capsule faces possible structural vulnerability when the heat shield is deployed. The advisory panel also took issue with SpaceX’s rocket cannister redesign which was changed following an explosion in 2016. SpaceX’s “load and go” process used to fuel the rockets was also cited as an issue by the advisory panel, while “parachute performance” was listed as a problem area for both SpaceX and Boeing.
The report stated: “There are serious challenges to the current launch schedules for both SpaceX and Boeing.” Sources with knowledge of the program told Reuters that NASA has more concerns than those listed in the report; the space agency has been keeping a risk ledger since February which reportedly contains as many as 35 lingering technical concerns for both SpaceX and Boeing.
NASA spokesperson Joshua Finch did not address any technical issues, instead directing them towards SpaceX and Boeing, but did state: “Flying safely always takes precedence over schedule.” Boeing spokesperson Josh Barrett stated that the capsule’s structural vulnerability issue had been resolved and although Boeing was working on a number of issues, they “are not driving any major architectural system changes.” He further added: “Our numbers show we are exceeding NASA’s safety requirements.”
According to SpaceX spokesperson James Gleeson, the company, alongside NASA, has produced “one of the safest, most-advanced human spaceflight systems ever built.” Gleeson added: “There is nothing more important to SpaceX than safely flying crew,” further stating that safety was “core to our company’s long-term goal of enabling access for people who dream of flying to space.”