NASA Advisory Committee Concerned About SpaceX Fueling Plans


SpaceX says it has ” a reliable fueling and launch process”

The Wall Street Journal reports that NASA’s International Space Station Advisory Committee has deep concerns about SpaceX’s plans to load astronauts aboard the Crew Dragon prior to fueling the Falcon 9 booster.

On Monday, the committee met and issued further strong warnings about the potential safety hazards of the way entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. plans to fuel rockets before they are slated to transport U.S. crews into orbit….

The concerns were expressed in a December 2015 letter to NASA headquarters by former astronaut and retired Air Force Lt. General Thomas Stafford, the panel’s chairman. Gen. Stafford wrote that such practices—which envision pumping in fuel with astronauts already strapped into a capsule on top of the rocket—go against decades of international space-launch policy. The committee was unanimous last year in opposing SpaceX’s fueling plans….

A NASA official assigned to Monday’s meeting said the committee could expect a briefing in December.

After the meeting, a SpaceX spokesman said 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.”


  • What mods would be required just to leave the LOX a little less dense and a little warmer?

  • ReSpaceAge

    How many does ULA have, for this year after their Halloween launch?

  • Eric Rusler

    I thought it was because Americans are fatter than other nations! Lol

  • JamesG

    They would have to also revert to older Merlin motor marks and software because the current “Full Thrust” are tuned for densified propellants. Besides that they don’t want to have to more lines in the engine shop, the recertification of old motors on the new airframe, esp. for manrating will be a major PITA.

    Nope, they just need to get this problem solved and keep going.

  • Richard Malcolm

    If NASA insists, they may just have to eat the cost of a separate production line.

    We’ll have to see if NASA insists.

  • I get that the software’s different, but are the actual mechanical parts different, too?

    The problem with the “get this problem solved” approach is that it’s ultimately a political problem, with a lot of engineering FUD undergirding it. First they’re going to have to convince NASA (and probably the FAA, as well) that the escape system is robust enough to cover all the conceivable fuel loading failure modes. Since a fair number of those modes are completely outside the vehicle (e.g. a line letting go in the strongback), you then have to prove that all of the instrumentation from the upstream systems can be fed reliably to the Dragon for abort, that there are no external shrapnel issues, etc. That’s a mighty big failure tree.

    And even then, they’re going to be prodding the exact ganglion that triggers every government bureaucrat’s CYA reflex. There’s almost no upside for the certifiers to take the risk in the face of potential career suicide, because the optics just look terrible in any form of hindsight. (“They let them do whhaaaat?“) If I were a NASA bureaucrat (and if I am, I’ve probably been drinking buddies with the guy from Boeing for the last 20 years…), I’d just note that there were three CCtCap vendors for a reason–so sorry, Elon–and have done with it.

  • JamesG

    SX has its share of NASA drinking buddies too. The F9-FT has a technical problem in its 2nd stage that needs to be fixed. That is all. SX has lots of really good engineers.

    Dragon’s LAS is good. As good as you are going to get for a system to save your bacon when things go sideways. And it is the “right” solution if you want efficient, reusable spacecraft.

    The F9’s fueling procedures aren’t wrong or bad, they are just like almost all of their solutions, different, which yes, to bureaucrats and armchair spacemen is both of the former. But again, it is the “right” solution if we are to maximize performance and push what is possible.

    Have no fear. Otherwise…

  • Douglas Messier

    We just failed a fueling test. But, have no fear. What could possibly go wrong? I mean, again? Not like we blew up the second stage and lost a payload twice or something….

    Oh, wait….we did….

  • Douglas Messier
  • JamesG

    Rockets an’t eazy. If your level of satisfaction is 100% safety and perfection, then you want at best the status quo that never changes (Delta, Titan, Soyuz forevah!!!) or worse, you want to pull the plug and everyone should go “build” smart fone apps or the like.

  • Douglas Messier

    So….SpaceX blows up two rockets due to problems with the second stage that will sit closest to Crew Dragon, and proposes a fueling method not used on previous human spaceflights over the past 50 years, which NASA’s expert advisory committee thinks is unsafe and unwise, and you call everyone who questions this approach wimps?

    Tom Stafford — who sat on two Titan and two Saturn rockets and orbited the moon — is a wimp? Seriously? You think he’s unwilling to accept risks? That he wants 100 percent safety?

    What is this, the fifth grade? How old are you?

  • JamesG

    There is no such thing as 100% safety. In anything but especially in aerospace. If you think there is, you are following the wrong industry.

    I think Tom Stafford is an old man, and old men (and bureaucracies) get set in their ways of doing things. How many decades has it been since we’ve been to the Moon? How many more will it be if we keep doing things the same way or insist on the mystical “100% safety”?

    SpaceX has problems with its Falcon 2nd stage. Its just a technical problem to be fixed. There will be plenty of F-9R FT V.XYZs launched between now and when a Crewed Dragon is raised on the Cape.

    Sheesh, you’re turning me into a fanboy…

  • Douglas Messier

    >There is no such thing as 100% safety.

    No such thing as 100% safety, eh? Well, it’s great that you’re here to tell us these things. Somehow I doubt that Stafford and the committee members — who lost friends and colleagues over the years — need to be reminded of that reality. I don’t need to be reminded of this. I watched Mike Alsbury die.;

    >If you think there is, you are following the wrong industry.

    It’s my way or the highway. This is like Roadhouse.

    > think Tom Stafford is an old man, and old men (and bureaucracies) get set in their ways of doing things.

    Well, yes, he’s definitely old. The vote on the committee was unanimous. And it’s based on solid experience over 50 years.

    >How many more will it be if we keep doing things the same way or insist on the mystical “100% safety”?

    Here we go again. Nobody’s insisting upon 100 percent safety.

  • Stu

    You are comparing success rates for systems with many launches to one with few launches. And you are justifying by comparing to STS, which was a known terrible system. Ariane 5 is not man-rated (and is not intended to be man-rated) and is therefore irrelevant. You are also comparing a constantly evolving vehicle to more static vehicles. F9 is in constant flux and has blown up twice in the last two years.

  • Stu

    Assuming the LAS worked correctly. Bad assumption, given the launch vehicle itself would not have gone boom if it was working correctly. The LAS might work correctly, but equally it might not.

  • Stu

    You are absolutely nuts. I really hope you don’t work in an industry where risks actually need to be properly thought through and mitigated in order to not kill people.

  • Stu

    I’m not in the US, so it is your money, actually.

  • JamesG

    “It’s my way or the highway. This is like Roadhouse.”

    Actually its, “NASA’s way or the highway.” NASA’s Way sucks BTW.

    “Here we go again. Nobody’s insisting upon 100 percent safety.”

    Except that is pretty much what they are going to want.
    “Wait! We don’t do it like that, so you can’t do it like that! Something bad might happen!”

    Anyway, we aren’t even looking at this from the same perspective and its not our decision(s) to make, no sense arguing about it. But try to keep an objective eye without getting too much snark in it?

  • JamesG

    Hyperbole much?

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    “F9 is in constant flux and has blown up twice in the last two years.”

    By that logic John Glenn and Alan Shepard should have never flown into space after a Redstone and two atlas failures

    “You are comparing success rates for systems with many launches to one with few launches”

    Ok let’s compare the first 29 launches of each rocket and see how they stack up so we aren’t influenced by nature systems
    Ariane 5 – 27/29 (93%, and is currently on a 75 successful flights in a row, I don’t care whether it’s man rated or not that’s better than NASA’s manned launch systems)
    Atlas 5/Delta 4 – 29/29 each
    STS – 28/29 (96.5%) with ~$100B development cost adjusted for inflation and flying 4 highly different variants of the orbiter
    Saturn I and Ib – 19/19 carrying crew
    Titan II GLV – 12/12 carrying crew with an iffy LAS ejection seat no aborts and no fatalities
    Atlas LV-3B – 7/9 (77.8%) carrying crew after 2 failures with no fatalities or aborts required
    Mercury Redstone – 5/6 (83.3%) carrying crew after one failure with no aborts and no fatalities
    None of this includes the unmanned versions of each rocket that were undergoing constant changes and experiencing failures alongside their man rated counterparts. And not included are the Russian success and failures which were even more dangerous than their us counterparts. At least the mercury astronauts could land safely in their capsules the cosmonauts had to bail out of the Vostok and parachute to a landing outside of their capsule. The Atlas and saturns were also under constant change because they were still learning how to make rockets work instead of blow up each orbiter was basically a unique design and payload arrangement and the Apollo missions were constantly being redesigned to optimize payload to the moon

    So again how is the Falcon 9 more likely to result in death than the equivalent counterparts with equivalent records and less flight experience than the current falcons?

  • publiusr

    At this point, I’d actually feel safer sitting atop a hypergolic upper stage at room temperature.

    I can’t help but imagine hearing all kinds of pings and pops as LOX is added and things get cold-soaked.

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    While you may feel safer I’m sure that’s of little value to the ground crews that have to handle and load that nasty stuff. Even loading the hyper mass of dragon spacecraft would be fatal to the entire ground crew if they were exposed. Cryos only really have skin contact hazards hypers are toxic to the skin eyes lungs liver and every other major organ so let’s leave the hypers to the smallest scales possible

  • publiusr

    You don’t want any of it to leak of course.

    This post made me wonder about fueling approaches:

    Which would you side with?

  • Ok, so you don’t have to buy a ticket to Mars, you don’t have to fly your satellite on an American launch vehicle and you have no stake in anything that’s said here. You’ve got your launcher and we’ve got ours. Quite a few of them at last count.

    So what is your purpose for commenting here?

    Mine is entertainment.

  • Douglas Messier

    The way NASA’s done it for 50 plus years has not led to any losses of ground crews during fueling or crew entry into spacecraft. That goes for other human spaceflight programs. You got zero, nothing, nada, zilch to back up your exceedingly broad clam about NASA’s Way.

    This approach is not zero risk. Nobody expects it to be zero risk. But it is seen as less risky than what SpaceX wants to do.

  • Here are the latest space cadet tidbits from the LA Times.

  • John_The_Duke_Wayne

    Lipstick on a pig, people are arguing about the safest way to seatbelt humans to a stick of high explosives

    The only thing that matters is whether you can generate adequate safety procedures for your loading sequences. You’re either exposing the astronauts to the dangerous transients of prop loading or exposing astronauts and ground crews to a fully fueled bomb.

    At least the dragon can have an armed LAS. The Shuttle and Saturn launch towers had escape trollers on zip lines, in case the rocket started to explode or the ground thought it was about to explode the astronauts and ground crews were supposed to get off the rocket climb into the trolley and glide down to a bunker below. Really?

  • JamesG

    And neither do you that “OMG! They’re gonna die on a Dragon!”

    Don’t forget that NASA had a pretty bloody learning curve. They blew up a lot of rockets and people on the ground did get killed. Much worse in comparison than SpaceX .

  • Hungarian Gas Mask

    I think they are working on launch #10…VAFB is up next for them, I believe…
    Let me know when you get here, we will meet up for sure…

  • Hungarian Gas Mask

    “IF”…Please remind us which side of “IF” the last SX booster was on…

  • JamesG

    I was curious if you are always a douche, so I looked at your other Disqus posts, and yep. Bye bye.

  • Hungarian Gas Mask

    Ahhhhh name calling, how adult….you must have run out of silly opinions…
    And the “all that stuff did not work” is the side of “IF” the last booster was on..