NASA questions SpaceX fueling protocol for future manned missions

An advisory committee at NASA has warned Elon Musk and SpaceX that its protocol for fueling rockets is unreasonably dangerous, saying the system is too risky to be used for future manned missions.

The system SpaceX has devised calls for the liquid oxygen and hydrogen used to fuel the Falcon 9 booster to be supercooled before being loaded aboard the space craft. The lowered temperature allows more of each to fit inside the fuel tanks. More fuel means more power which translates into an ability to carry heavier payloads.

The problem that arises with that procedure is the fueling is not completed until 30 minutes before launch. Using the SpaceX method, astronauts must be on board during the fueling process. Standard procedure at NASA is to board the astronauts after fueling is complete because the fueling process is deemed too dangerous to do while people are sitting on top of the rocket.

Retired Air Force general Thomas Stafford, who commanded the Apollo 10 mission to the moon, tells the Wall Street Journal that fueling is “a hazardous operation.” He says the protocol devised by  SpaceX is considered dangerous by many experts, “particularly the people who had experience over the years.” NASA repeated its warnings at a meeting with the company on Monday.

For its part, SpaceX claims the emergency rescue system it has devised for the space capsule is an adequate answer. A spokesperson says the company “has designed a reliable fueling and launch process that minimizes the duration and number of personnel exposed to the hazards of launching a rocket.”

That system encircles the capsule with a number of external rockets that can blast it up and away from an explosion on the launch pad and deposit the astronauts safely out of harm’s way down range. But NASA must ultimately sign off on that plan before any manned space flights occur.

Transporting people to and from the International Space Station is expected to provide a significant amount of the revenue SpaceX will require to meet its needs and continue its Mars exploration agenda. Even Musk’s pockets are not deep enough to fund all the projects SpaceX has planned without help.

SpaceX believes the explosion that destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket September 1 was caused when the helium tank located inside the liquid oxygen tank ruptured. The company believes the rupture was the result of a complex number of variables associated with the pressurization of the tank.

A statement issued by SpaceX after the meeting on Monday states, “Over the last year and a half, NASA and SpaceX have performed a detailed analysis of all potential hazards” stemming from the fueling process. It says all required controls were approved by NASA officials in July. “These analyses and controls will be carefully evaluated in light of all data and corrective actions resulting from” the investigation of the September 1 incident, the statement said.

All Falcon 9 rockets have been grounded since the explosion. SpaceX has previously said that it expects to resume space flights this month.

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