NASA safety panel on SLS schedule, Dragon explosion

NASA’s safety panel held a long scheduled meeting to review NASA’s on-going manned projects, and had the following to say:

The first story describes very little new information about the explosion on April 20th that destroyed the Dragon crew capsule during engine tests, other than it occurred in connection with the firing of the Dragon’s eight SuperDraco engines. I am being vague because they were.

The second story describes the panel’s strong objection to any effort by NASA to trim the test program for SLS in order to meet the Trump administration’s 2024 deadline for returning to the Moon. It also confirms officially for the first time that NASA will not be able to fly the first unmanned mission of SLS in 2020. That flight is now expected in 2021, a decade after NASA began development of SLS, and seventeen years after George Bush Jr first proposed NASA build this heavy-lift rocket.

That’s practically one person’s entire career at NASA. Seems pretty shameful to me.

While I actually agree with the panel’s advice in both of these stories, both stories however do reflect the overall culture of this safety panel: Go slow, take no risks, be patient. This culture is in fact so cautious that it has served to practically make impossible any American exploration of space, on our own rockets.

Based on what I expect now during the investigation of the Dragon explosion, I would not be surprised if the panel successfully delays the first manned Dragon launch another year or two or three.

NASA’ safety panel illustrates the impossibility of exploration by NASA

Last week NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) issued its 2017 report [pdf], detailing the areas it has concerns for human safety in all of NASA’s programs. Not surprisingly, the report raised big issues about SpaceX, suggesting its manned launch schedule was questionable and that there were great risks using the Falcon 9 rocket as presently designed.

ASAP was especially concerned with the issues with the Falcon 9 COPV helium tanks and how they were connected with the September 2016 launchpad explosion, as well as SpaceX’s approach to fueling the rocket. Below is a screen capture of the report’s pertinent section on this.

ASAP SpaceX concerns

The report complements NASA and SpaceX for looking at a new design for the COPV helium tanks, but also appears quite willing to force endless delays in order to make sure the issue here is completely understood, even though this is likely impossible for years more.

ASAP also raises once again its reservations about SpaceX’s method of fueling the Falcon 9, which would have them fill the tanks after the astronauts are on board so that the fuel can be kept cold and dense to maximize performance. This issue I find very silly. The present accepted approach is to fill the tanks, then board the astronauts. SpaceX wants to board the astronauts, then fill the tanks. Either way, the astronauts will be in a rocket with tons of volatile fuel and oxidizer. I really do not see why it makes that much of a difference, especially with SpaceX building a successful track record using its approach with each successful commercial launch. They did 18 last year alone.

Below the fold is a screen capture of the report’s entire summary, with some sections highlighted by me.
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