SpaceX's Dangerous and Possibly Explosive Trick for Fueling Rockets is Deemed 'Viable' By NASA

Friday, 18 May 2018 - 7:47PM
Technology
SpaceX
Friday, 18 May 2018 - 7:47PM
SpaceX's Dangerous and Possibly Explosive Trick for Fueling Rockets is Deemed 'Viable' By NASA
< >
SpaceX/Flickr
SpaceX has seen a lot of success lately, with over 50 launches of their Falcon 9 rocket completed, and a successful launch of their Falcon Heavy rocket which carried a car into space.

And while rocket launches are certainly not simple, SpaceX has shown an ability to work quickly compared to space agencies like NASA who spend  much more time developing similar rockets. Fast work requires a few shortcuts, and SpaceX has mostly avoided disasters resulting from these shortcuts, although one such shortcut - a method for storing extra fuel in the rocket for bigger launches - has attracted NASA's attention.

While there was talk recently that NASA might delay an agreement to launch astronauts to the International Space Station on a Falcon 9 rocket just for this reason, the space agency seems to be warming up to the idea. A NASA advisory group called the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel just said during a meeting at the Kennedy Space Center that SpaceX's "load-and-go" rocket fueling method could be safe after all, even with astronauts inside the rocket.



The load-and-go method involves freezing propellant to shrink it down so there's room to stuff even more propellant inside. But once it's frozen, it needs to be loaded just before launch and after all the astronauts and cargo are already aboard, and a single stray spark or other flaw could set off an explosion that takes both down the rocket and anyone unfortunate enough to be inside.

Critics have rightfully pointed out that despite SpaceX's many successful launches, a Falcon 9 rocket did explode back in 2016 during a load-and-go procedure while frozen propellant was being stuffed onto the rocket. Nobody was hurt since the rocket was unmanned - as of yet, SpaceX has never launched a rocket with a crew inside - but it's easy to see why NASA might be hesitant about letting astronauts inside a rocket like that.

But that was a single launch out of over 50, and the NASA advisory group thinks it's a low enough risk so long as SpaceX is very careful to make sure nothing blows up. Panel member and former astronaut Jeff Brent Jr. said the following during their meeting this week:

Opening quote
"My sense is that, assuming there are adequate, verifiable controls identified and implemented for the credible hazard causes, and those which could potentially result in an emergency situation… it appears load-and-go is a viable option for the program to consider."
Closing quote


It's easy to say that SpaceX, run by eccentric billionaire Elon Musk who sells flamethrowers and launches cars into space, doesn't seem like the most careful company in the world. But it's tough to launch a rocket at all without exercising some level of caution, so NASA's growing confidence in SpaceX might be justified as a first test launch with live astronauts gets closer. 

Hopefully those launches go well, because we always need more people in space.
Science
Science News
Technology
SpaceX
No