Boeing and SpaceX, the Elon Musk company, are both working on vehicles to shuttle crew into space. This is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program where commercial partners own and operate the vehicles for NASA.
Safety Concerns at NASA Watchdog
This week, the top panel of safety experts warned NASA, again, about issues they see with Boeing and SpaceX vehicles. The panel also had issues with propellant used by SpaceX early last year. Their specific issues this time include unconventional rocket systems and durability. As part of the Commercial Crew program, NASA has a fairly strict “one possible fatal accident per 270 flights.” Something the safety panel saw seems to make them believe that neither program could not sustain that level of safety. This is all after years of both companies working to reach the standard.
SpaceX Commercial Crew Specific Concerns
SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corp as it’s formally known, was singled out for specific reasons. First, has to do with its fueling practices, SpaceX plans to fuel the rockets with the astronauts already in the spacecraft. The second has to do with the tank structure of the Falcon 9 rocket that caused two explosions in previous launches and tests. SpaceX has been called out in the past by the group as well, so they are also working on a different tank structure just in case. The panel does not believe that SpaceX has yet addressed all the issues to the required safety level. This is preventing the Falcon 9 from being cleared for takeoff, with human passengers that is.
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SpaceX was set to do initial crewed mission tests this coming summer but that recently was pushed back to December of 2018. Testing will include the Falcon 9, Crew Dragon spacecraft and an advanced spacesuit. The push back of the test was shortly before the new safety report was published.
Boeing Commercial Crew Specific Concerns
Boeing also has some concerns aimed at it. They are not scheduled for a first crewed mission test until November 2018, but estimates are that it will not take place until 2019 anyway. Boeing is testing three crew modules and several service modules as well as a spacesuit.
Both companies have engine tests, facilities equipment and procedure tests that need doing.
Commercial Crew Program Oversight
The aim of the Commercial crew program is for the companies to provide “reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit on systems that meet NASA safety and mission requirements.” The program began in 2010 but finalists, Boeing and SpaceX, weren’t chosen until 2014. The goal is to safety get crews of four up to the International Space Station to maintain the full crew of seven and maximize its use.
SpaceX and Boeing representatives are scheduled to be in front of the House science panel next week and can expect to be bombarded with questions on safety and progress. The program still has strong Congressional support because they see it as being a cost-saving measure for human exploration of space.