Even as NASA announces schedule for SpaceX Dragon test flight, anti-American forces at NASA work to block that flight


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There were two stories today impacting the future of American manned spaceflight. The first is positive, the second is downright hostile to that effort, and could literally be called treasonous by some.

The first story outlines in detail NASA’s press coverage and schedule leading up to and including the March 2nd SpaceX unmanned Dragon test flight. The key event will be the flight readiness review on February 22nd. NASA will televise a post review press conference no earlier that 6 pm (Eastern) that night. That review will determine whether the flight goes on March 2nd.

That NASA has made this announcement indicates that the agency is slowly being dragged, kicking and screaming, into allowing the test flight to finally happen, after years of bureaucratic delay.

The second story illustrates some of the ongoing kicking and screaming that is still going on inside NASA. It is also more disturbing. As far as I can tell from the story, some of the anti-American forces within NASA’s bureaucracy teamed up with Reuters today to publish this hit piece on the manned capsules of both SpaceX and Boeing.

Two people with direct knowledge of the program told Reuters that the space agency’s concerns go beyond the four items listed, and include a risk ledger that as of early February contained 30 to 35 lingering technical concerns each for SpaceX and Boeing. Reuters could not verify what all of the nearly three dozen items are. But the sources familiar with the matter said the companies must address “most” of those concerns before flying astronauts and, eventually, tourists to space. [emphasis mine]

Note that these are anonymous sources. Note that their attack, a bunch of unsubstantiated leaks, is directly aimed at discrediting the efforts of both companies. Note also that if they succeed the ultimate and only benefactor will be Russia, since NASA will then be forced to buy more Soyuz flights from them, on a rocket that has recently had a launch failure and in a capsule that someone in Russia actually sabotaged during assembly.

The last highlighted phrase, suggesting that NASA is going to use its power to block the ability of these free American companies from privately selling tourist flights on their capsules, is even more egregious. Once again, the only benefactors of this action would be the Russians, who will then be able to grab that tourist business.

It is for these reasons I call these sources, with the help of Reuters, anti-American.

Moreover, the issues that are outlined in this article are very dubious, to put it mildly. Suddenly, after years of reviews that never mentioned any issues with SpaceX’s parachutes as well as seventeen successful parachute test flights, NASA has suddenly deemed that the parachute design has “some design discrepancies.”

As for Boeing, the article mentions the valve leak failures during a engine test last year. In response Boeing has had the valves redesigned and reordered, but they still need further testing. While this is a legitimate issue, I suspect it is being used here as a sledge hammer against this American company, not as an issue that requires intelligent review.

Where is our “America-First” president in all this? Political forces in Washington and within NASA are actively working to block our country’s effort to fly in space, for the benefit of a foreign power. Why isn’t Trump doing something about this?

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29 comments

  • CS

    While the delay would force NASA to continue to use Russian Soyuz craft for manned launch purposes, I don’t think that’s the most likely reason for undermining of Boeing and SpaceX from within NASA. Remember that NASA still has the Space Launch System (SLS) project going. The SLS is an internal program that’s in direct competition with the Commercial Crew providers Boeing and SpaceX. After Constellation was cancelled, I’m sure the fear among some corners of NASA is that if SpaceX and Boeing get their Commercial Crew Program options going successfully that Congress will kill the SLS.

  • Larry Grant

    The rent-seeking NASA bureaucrat’s ultimate concern, of course, is that they will be required to go to work in jobs where they might be fired for lousy performance. And if their commercial competitors succeed, that could happen. Even Congress might wake up enough to start to ask why the US needs NASA if the market can provide everything that’s necessary to get into space. Oh, regulation…I forgot, someone has to regulate.

  • Cantsay

    “SpaceX’s parachutes as well as seventeen successful parachute test flights”

    This is bull. Nice spin. The truth is NASA didn’t care for cargo because it was away from ISS. Now that crew would be onboard they took a look. Also until the vehicles were tested you can’t really say it’s an issue.

    Do some research. As recent as Dragon15 a chute failed to open. That is ok for cargo not for crew. SpaceX went back and redesigned them. Also you do realize DM1 is a different vehicle right?

    If you want to say NASA is too safe or expecting too much, thats a different and better argument.

  • Phill O

    This is all too familiar as I saw it in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and private laboratories. It is almost a carbon copy. Yes, the basic reasons are the same.

  • Matt Holzmann

    My father was a rocket scientist. Literally. He and his teams designed fuels.

    He told me when I was a kid that the miracle was that we had a much better safety record than originally expected in the Space Program. The old adage of 1,000 parts all provided by the lowest bidder hid the reality that space flight is inherently one of the most dangerous of projects.

    The quality controls are exceptionally rigorous and yet there is still danger as in the gaskets on the Challenger that caused such loss of life.

    These issue should be discussed by the engineers and QA specialists. Someone leaked this information for a reason. The bottom line is that SpaceX and have a lot more to lose than the government if a launch fails. Thus they have a greater desire for flawless performance.

    Arianespace is in deep trouble. The Russian risk losing a very profitable monopoly. The politics are complex.

  • Richard M

    “The SLS is an internal program that’s in direct competition with the Commercial Crew providers Boeing and SpaceX.”

    This requires some qualification – It is Orion, more than SLS, which has any direct correspondence to Commercial Crew, and in any event, they have different programmatic destinations – but it’s nearer the truth than anti-American animus. If Commercial Crew is successfully flying humans to space *years* before Orion (which won’t send up a crewed test flight before 2023, as things look now) can do it, it’s going to look increasingly awkward for NASA’s HSF program of record, isn’t it?

    But some of the problem here is a larger set of other perverse incentives. (1) ASAP has no other job than to identify safety risks in NASA HSF vehicles. And finding them justifies its existence, doesn’t it? (2) Likewise, the hard truth is that there is less political cost to NASA leadership if U.S. astronauts are killed on a Soyuz than if they are killed on an American flag vehicle NASA oversees. And then there’s (3) simple bureaucratic inertia. All of these add up as bureaucratic culture impulses – ones revolving around self-preservation – which work to slow-roll Commercial Crew.

    Anyway, ASAP report has been out for almost two weeks. This definitely sounds like someone trying to gin up some controversy, and score some points.

  • GlobalTrvlr

    I read the second article linked earlier today and had two conflicting thoughts. The first one was similar to this author’s take: Leaks that imply “real problems” that aren’t. Impossible to tell unless we saw the list and saw the details that make up the risk ledger. But my second thought was- on the other hand, NASA should have some of the preeminent experts in the world to review and make the risk registers, and oversee mitigation plans. Just like you often see people denigrate the experienced by calling them old, bureaucratic, resistant to change, etc, etc., the reverse is often true as well.

    Elon Musk had so much hubris on auto production that it took him years and billions of extra dollars to relearn lessons the “old school” guys were trying to help him with. He wanted to “think outside the box” on every issue, and refused to listen to anyone that has prior experience. Just like it is frustrating to hear some oldtimer mindlessly tell you to do something a certain way because that is the way we always have done it, it is equally frustrating to hear from some know nothing younger person that rejects the old school knowledge for the same mindless reason – because it is not “new”.

    Sometimes, people do things a certain way because they have learned the hard lessons and it is the best way. Best to keep an open mind in both directions.

  • Tom D Perkins

    “Cantsay” can you say where your assertion any Dragon has seen a parachute failure is backed up. Several internet searches turn up nothing.

    What was found is that in tests the capsule as deliberately made to tumble and the parachutes worked fine, and that there are no re-designs necessitated by any failures of a chute.

  • mpthompson

    “Where is our “America-First” president in all this? Political forces in Washington and within NASA are actively working to block our country’s effort to fly in space, for the benefit of a foreign power. Why isn’t Trump doing something about this?”

    —-

    I don’t know about Boeing, but it’s my understanding that Elon (and probably many others within SpaceX) has purposely distanced himself from the Trump Administration for essentially “Orange Man Bad” reasons. I’m sure Trump can put such differences aside, well mostly sure, but communication needs to be established and maintained. Perhaps Pence can be an intermediary, but he’s an icky Republican as well.

  • mpthompson

    Apollo 15 experienced a potentially serious parachute failure. I’m certain it probably raised concerns within NASA at the time, but did it delay Apollo 17 and 18?

  • To all: It matters not whether the real shallow reason for this hit piece was to help SLS/Orion and not Russia. The bottom line is that they are serving to aid that foreign power, and are directly hostile to the interests of American citizens and companies. For that reason alone they are unconscionable.

  • CS

    @Richard M

    “It is Orion, more than SLS, which has any direct correspondence to Commercial Crew”

    Yes, Orion is a capsule that carries people, this could still kill SLS. SLS’s primary purpose at this point is to service Orion and LOP-G with a focus on getting stuff to the moon. Falcon Heavy can already meet half the payload requirement in a single launch. Depending on how components were designed for LOP-G, it could probably handle this mission as well. If Spaceship/BFR/whatever Musk is calling it these days comes online before SLS (which is possible at the development rate the two groups seem to operate), NASA HSF development programs become mainly jobs programs, because they don’t serve any other use at that point.

    I do agree with you that losing an astronaut on a US based system will be much worse politically than losing someone on a Soyuz. The problem is that there are political issues to continue using Russian launch services that are just as pressing and more likely to hamper progress in both the near and long term. (Not saying accidents won’t happen, just that near/long term effects of outsourcing launches to Russia are worse)

  • Doug Jones

    Cantsay, according to reports at the time there were no mentions of parachute malfunctions on CRS-15.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX_CRS-15
    https://spaceflightnow.com/2018/08/03/spacex-cargo-capsule-comes-back-to-earth-from-space-station/

  • Richard M

    Hello Bob,

    “The bottom line is that they are serving to aid that foreign power”

    There’s little question that this is, indeed, an important effect of what they’re doing!

    It’s ironic given that most of these managers are almost certainly not Trump voters, and almost certainly share the general Beltway paranoia about Russian skullduggery. Yet here they are, effectively putting more U.S. money in Rogozin’s bank accounts, and to pay for rides on what is almost certainly a *much* less safe space vehicle.

    Political leadership could fix this. Why, if Trump were looking for an opportunity to undermine the narrative of his presidency as a Putin Project, why, getting a fire lit under Commercial Crew to “speed the end of American reliance on Russia” would be a fine way to do it. But I do understand the reality that space policy is always a low priority in DC, sadly.

  • wodun

    Where is our “America-First” president in all this?

    Space nerds might not get it but there are other pressing issues that the President is dealing with. President Trump has given NASA some good and bad guidance on carrying out there duties, just as all of our recent Presidents have done, and then carried on with more important things.

    The real question is where is Bridenstine and congress?

  • Edward

    From the article: “But the sources familiar with the matter said the companies must address “most” of those concerns before flying astronauts and, eventually, tourists to space.

    This tells me that the concerns are almost certainly ones that can only be answered by flight test. This is why the first manned flight is considered a test, is addresses those concerns that cannot be addressed before flying astronauts. Most likely, most of the other concerns are intended to be addressed by the unmanned test flight.

    CS wrote: “The SLS is an internal program that’s in direct competition with the Commercial Crew providers Boeing and SpaceX.

    It is more of an indirect competition. SLS is supposed to be for missions beyond Earth orbit, and commercial crew is supposed to be for low Earth orbit missions, such as to ISS or other future space stations.

    wodun asked: “The real question is where is Bridenstine and congress?

    SLS is Congress’s pet project. After Obama cancelled Orion and Ares, Congress resurrected Orion and created SLS, and over the years has given it priority funding and given Commercial Crew less funding. My recollection is that Bridenstine favors SLS over Commercial Crew.

    If the President is dealing with other pressing issues, then why expect Congress to be distracted from those same issues in order to deal with anti-American spirits at NASA?

  • wodun

    Congress has control of the purse and a lot of control over departments like NASA. The question over where is congress was a bit rhetorical as we all know they are largely responsible for SLS/Orion?gateway.

    I don’t know about Bridenstine’s history in regard to SLS but he is supporting the other track NASA is on and that is what is important with NASA right now. People also don’t have to be either or, they can be both. Thankfully so! Because this is allows NASA to do both SLS and take a more commercial track.

    The danger here is that traditional contractors, and some of the new entrants, are co-opting the new way of doing things and could infect the method with excessive graft and corruption that shuts out new entrants and continues with unaccountable spending and schedules.

  • D. Messier

    NASA put an extensive certification and safety review process in place for both vehicles. Commercial crew and Orion are the first crewed spacecraft NASA is overseeing since the space shuttle program. That’s a whole generation. Learning curve for everyone involved.

    I can understand being frustrated with the delays. But, you need to understand the process involved. And the risks of even further delays if there is a serious accident because something was reviewed properly at this point. NASA wants this to happen as soon as they can safely do so. It’s not a pro-Russian effort. This is not about the swamp. Reuters is merely reporting on the current status. It’s not an anti-American operation.

    Calm down. It’s going to happen.

  • Leroy Jenkins

    Zim you need to put down the crackpipe

  • Mike Borgelt

    D. Messier:
    So that sounds like NASA has lost its corporate knowledge of certification and safety review. They don’t know what they are doing and are learning it all over again.
    “Calm down. It’s going to happen.”
    Not if NASA can help it.

  • Leroy Jenkins: My, my, what a reasoned rational response. Do you always debate with such skill? :)

    Your comment also reminds me of a typical twitter discussion, short on facts and long on snarkiness.

  • D. Messier

    Mark:

    Not necessarily. NASA has a lot of expertise. More than its most vocal critics in NewSpace like to admit. There’s just a lot to review.

    NASA finished its Flight Readiness Review this afternoon for Crew Dragon Demo-1 mission on March 2. There’s a press conference at 6 pm ET. Watch it on NASA TV. It’s happening.

  • Edward

    D. Messier,
    You wrote: “Reuters is merely reporting on the current status.”

    If the Reuters article is a status report then it is a terrible one. It lists only four items of concern and tells us little about them.

    It mentions that some items of concern need not be addressed before the manned test mission, but does not say why. Are they only addressable by the manned test? We are left with the impression that Boeing and SpaceX are careless with the safety of our astronauts.

    It mentions the existence of several other items of concern but does not say how they are to be addressed. Are they addressed by the unmanned test?

    The article reads less like a status update and more like a scare piece, telling us that NASA has a large number of unaddressed concerns about the commercial space companies ability to fly safely. It does not tell us any other point of view, such as the methods that the companies plan to address these items or whether these items are routine. Instead, we are left with the impression that NASA believes these companies are not addressing concerns, possibly out of incompetence on the part of Boeing and SpaceX.

    The article’s first sentence presents us with the impression not of a status update but that NASA has warned the commercial space companies have such poor handling of their design and safety concerns that it is “threatening the U.S. bid to revive its human spaceflight program later this year.” The last sentence does nothing to calm any concerns that the article raises in its readers: “‘SpaceX and Boeing both have challenges, both comparable, from a safety perspective,’ said one U.S. government source.

    The article does not make it sound like “It’s going to happen.

    Hopefully the upcoming press conference will clear up the poor impression left by the Reuters article.

  • D. Messier

    Well Edward, the flight test are going to happen. Whether they will be success enough to allow for commercial service to start this year is the question.

    It doesn’t surprise me that Reuters couldn’t get a full accounting of all the outstanding issues. Those are hard to get to talk about. I know. I’ve tried.

  • Edward

    D. Messier,
    You wrote: “Reuters is merely reporting on the current status.” and: “Those are hard to get to talk about. I know. I’ve tried.

    Thus, it isn’t a status update after all. It is an attack piece, intentionally making it sound worse than the status actually is.

  • D. Messier

    Edward: Don’t tell me my business. Reuters was report on where the programs are. It’s hard to get into the weeds with sources on everything that isn’t complete. It has to do w the sensitive positions the sources are in.

    This wasn’t a hit piece. There was no covert agenda. The story isn’t going to affect the ongoing work.

  • Edward

    The story isn’t going to affect the ongoing work.

    No, but it did affect the public’s opinion of the program. Robert and several other people’s comments here show that. If it wasn’t a hit piece and had no covert agenda, then it was poorly written. I can only wonder what the editor was thinking, when he let this one through.

    If this is what passes for a status report in your business, then I think your business should be more clear about what the status is, rather than making it sound as though the items that remain to be verified are “threatening the U.S. bid to revive its human spaceflight program later this year.” That sentence makes it sound as though the DM-2 missions will not happen this year. The rest of the article leaves the impression that the two commercial companies do not know what they are doing when it comes to manned missions.

    But that is not proof of a covert agenda.

  • Edward: I should point out that the one major issue the article noted as a concern for SpaceX, its parachutes, was not even on the radar during the press conference the next day announcing that the March 2nd test flight approval. If the issue was as critical as the article suggested, it should have been an issue discussed. It was not.

    This was a hit job. And D. Messier saying it wasn’t a thousand times won’t change that.

  • Edward

    Robert,
    Good point. I watched the press conference live, because my interest piqued at that time (or maybe it peaked, because it has waned since). One would expect that everyone would be worried to death about the parachutes (I think there might be an unintended pun in there). However, I was surprised when someone reminded us that the unmanned test flights were not NASA’s idea but the idea of the two companies. I don’t know how I could have forgotten this, because it had seemed surprising, years ago.

    So a question to ponder (or ask, if you know anyone to ask) is: what has changed that NASA is now more concerned about risk than it was during the contract process? NASA’s ASAP panel certainly seems more critical of the commercial development than of NASA’s own Orion-SLS development.

    I would get cynical and suggest that the change is in the delays in Orion-SLS, but that project was already going to fly after the initial schedule for Commercial Crew flights. Dragon 2 and Starliner were already going to be developed much faster and for significantly lower cost than Orion, so it seems untrue to suggest that NASA is causing the delays due to embarrassment that commercial companies can develop man-rated hardware faster and less expensively than NASA can do it. Not only was this known, but it was the entire point of the Commercial Crew Development program.

    Perhaps those who favor internal NASA-owned or NASA-controlled manned space — those who are “being dragged, kicking and screaming” into the world of Commercial Crew flights — did not have much voice at the time that the contracts were being drafted but have found their voice now. I don’t think that this is a cynical view, because there are definitely factions, within NASA, with their own motives, which is why, for the past quarter century, NASA presents large and expensive Mars missions — similar to the one in the story “The Martian” — rather than something more like Robert Zubrin’s low cost Mars Direct proposal.

    Richard M and D. Messier may be right that these NASA people are not really anti-American. Perhaps they merely feel that their internal empires are threatened. They have built their empires based upon overly-expensive and disappointingly low-productivity projects such as the Space Shuttle; the International Space Station; Orion-SLS; the ((F)LOP) Gateway (To Nowhere); and now the proposed slow-paced, complicated return to the Moon, requiring Gateway and Orion to be completed before anything happens on the Moon. (Why do these truths sound so cynical as I proofread them?)
    https://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/nasa-to-put-humans-on-the-moon-soon/#comments

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