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After spending the last few years complaining about certain specific issues with the manned capsule efforts of SpaceX and Boeing, NASA’s safety panel this past weekend released its annual 2018 report. (You can download the report here [pdf].) Its position now on those certain specific issues can now be summarized as follows:
They make no mention of the parachute issues that forced Boeing to do numerous extra tests, causing probably a year delay in the program, though Boeing has had decades of experience with capsule parachutes and the entire American aerospace industry has never had a parachute failure.
The panel also admits that their concerns about SpaceX’s rocket fueling procedures is really not an issue.
The NESC [NASA Engineering and Safety Center] has independently studied the load and go procedure and provided a thorough report that identifies the hazards and available controls. Based on the NESC report, the CCP [Commercial Crew Program] has decided that the load and go concept is viable if subsequent analysis is adequate and if verifiable controls are identified and implemented for all the credible hazard causes that could potentially result in an emergency situation or worse.
As Emily Litela said, “Never mind!” Their concerns were never credible, as it really doesn’t matter if you fuel the rocket before or after the astronauts board, because in either case they are there when a lot of fuel is present. All the panel did was delay the first Dragon launch by at least a year by pushing this issue.
The panel is still holding onto its concerns about the installation blankets (COPV) used in SpaceX’s internal helium tanks, the location of the problem that caused the September 2016 launchpad explosion. Despite SpaceX’s apparent fixing of this problem, with 40 successful launches since that failure, they are listing further vague requirements:
[W]e believe that the team has yet to arrive at a clear definition of the risk posture or mitigation strategies related to operations with the redesigned COPV. The testing is continuing, and we will follow the results as they develop. It is imperative that the Program understands the potential hazards, the controls of those hazards, and the margins involved, and also ensures that the operating environment stays within those margins if the redesigned COPV tanks are to be implemented for crewed flights.
Essentially, the panel’s requirements here gives it the right to delay things indefinitely but with enough wiggle room so that they can say “never mind” again when the political pressure to stop delaying finally gets too hot.
Earlier the panel had demanded that SpaceX fly the rocket design it will use for the manned flights, called Block 5, seven times before the panel will okay a manned flight. SpaceX has been proceeding through these launches, without problems. The wording above is vague enough that it could permit the panel to expand these demands, should it decide it wishes to.
Meanwhile, the panel’s review of NASA SLS/Orion program lists numerous problems that are far more serious and fundamental. It also contains at least one outright lie, stating the following in reference to the 2014 unmanned Orion test flight:
Exploration Flight Test-1 returned data that resulted in a completely different approach to the design and manufacture of the capsule heat shield.
To repeat for emphasis, this is a lie. NASA had already decided, before the 2014 flight, to dump the heat shield it used on this test and replace it with a different design. The flight really accomplished only one thing: Give NASA and SLS/Orion some badly needed positive press exposure.
Other issues for SLS/Orion include the possibility that the first unmanned test will fly without the ability to gather data about its systems. NASA has apparently decided that should an avionics box fail once the rocket has reached the launchpad, they will not roll things back to the assembly building to replace it because that will involve too much delay. Instead, they will do the launch without, even though this will prevent them from gathering data on the success or failure of the newly designed heat shield.
Since the whole point of a test flight is to gather data about such systems, the test flight could thus turn out to be entirely pointless.
The safety panel however does not appear to be demanding that NASA delay the test launch to make sure the box is working. Instead, its “position is that NASA should aggressively research alternate means to collect the data onboard if the avionics box fails.” This vague position sounds like they are giving NASA wiggle-room to go ahead despite the problem.
Regardless, I consider this safety panel very compromised and a problem for NASA and the United States. Its bureaucratic approach to exploration — by nature a risky endeavor — makes space exploration by the United States difficult if not impossible.