While NASA’s made it clear recently that it’s not competing against SpaceX in the race to Mars, an advisory group from the space agency expressed concerns over Elon Musk’s space venture company’s rocket fueling practices.
According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, members of NASA’s Space Station Advisory Committee discussed in a meeting last Monday how concerned they were over SpaceX’s plans to fuel its Falcon 9 rockets with astronauts on board.
It’s a previously expressed concern, particularly by committee chair and Lt. General Thomas Stafford of the US Air Force. “It was unanimous … Everybody there, and particularly the people who had experience over the years, said nobody is ever near the pad when they fuel a booster,” Stafford said. NASA’s standard practice for the Space Shuttle was to conduct fueling before the astronauts board, hours prior to takeoff.
The Advisory Committee’s concern is fueled by the Falcon 9 explosion last September 1 during a routine fueling procedure, the cause of which hasn’t yet been clearly identified by SpaceX. Furthermore, SpaceX is scheduled to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station in late 2017 or 2018 as part of the Commercial Crew Program.
SpaceX is pretty confident that it knows what it’s doing. The company asserts that, while their fueling practices are not set in stone, it has “designed a reliable fueling and launch process that minimizes” potential risks and dangers against people. And they are learning from their mishaps, as investigations over the September explosion continue.
“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,” according to a statement by SpaceX, reported by Reuters.
The Falcon 9 is also very different from the Space Shuttle. It’s equipped with a super cool propellant (colder than what was used on the Space Shuttle) and the Crew Dragon abort system that can fly the crew away from the rocket if something goes wrong. SpaceX is also working on “developing improved helium loading conditions that allow SpaceX to reliably load Falcon 9,” a report update says.