Why NASA says it doesn't like the SpaceX fueling process

Fueling with humans on board? A NASA advisory committee says that SpaceX's unorthodox fueling procedures could spell trouble for the company's plans to hoist humans into space. 

SpaceX via AP/File
In this May photo made available by SpaceX, their Falcon rocket booster lands on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean after launching a satellite into orbit. Its name is a nod to the Millennium Falcon piloted by Han Solo in the Star Wars movie series. It's powered by Merlin engines.

NASA first raised questions about SpaceX’s unusual fueling procedures months before the company’s catastrophic Sept. 1 launchpad explosion. On Monday, a NASA advisory committee issued stronger warnings regarding the way SpaceX intends to fuel rockets that will eventually carry humans.

The commercial spaceflight company plans eventually to ferry astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station on its Crew Dragon spacecraft. Yet, unlike other companies, SpaceX plans to fuel its spacecraft while humans are aboard.

"I’m not aware that in any other U.S. human spaceflight launch, the booster is fueled after the crew is aboard," said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University told The Los Angeles Times. "It’s a deviation from the norm, and that’s bound to raise concerns."

SpaceX employs a different fueling strategy than other companies: It uses chilled liquid oxygen in order to be able to fit more fuel in the tank and lift more weight into orbit, an innovative step that has allowed SpaceX to break new ground in cargo carriage. But because of this special fueling method, its spacecraft must be fueled immediately before launch so that the fuel does not warm up, which means that in the future, astronauts will likely be aboard prior to fueling.

Spaceflight officials have raised concerns about fueling conditions for some time. In December 2015, International Space Station advisory committee Chairman Lt. Gen. Thomas Stafford told NASA in a letter that fueling a rocket with crew aboard flies in the face of decades of launch policies.

Following Monday’s meeting, a SpaceX spokesman said that 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."

Despite the advisory group’s criticisms, SpaceX officials say they plan to work with NASA to meet technical and safety standards before gaining the certification necessary to carry humans.

"There will be continued work ahead to show that all of these controls are in place for crewed operations and that the verifications meet NASA requirements," SpaceX said in a statement. "These analyses and controls will be carefully evaluated in light of all data and corrective actions resulting from the anomaly investigation."

Some analysts say that the committee’s concerns could delay the launch of crewed SpaceX spacecraft, which SpaceX had hoped to accomplish in late 2017. Currently, NASA pays Russia about $71 million per seat to use Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry humans to the International Space Station.

After two months of investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, SpaceX, and the US Air Force announced over the weekend that they had targeted the problem that likely caused the September launchpad explosion – a helium tank failure that occurred during fueling procedures.

"SpaceX’s efforts are now focused on two areas – finding the exact root cause, and developing improved helium loading conditions that allow SpaceX to reliably load Falcon 9," SpaceX said in a statement Friday. "With the advanced state of the investigation, we also plan to resume stage testing in Texas in the coming days, while continuing to focus on completion of the investigation."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why NASA says it doesn't like the SpaceX fueling process
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today