NASA warns SpaceX and Boeing of design risks of launch systems

Posted Feb 21, 2019 by Karen Graham
NASA has warned SpaceX and Boeing Co of design and safety concerns for their competing astronaut launch systems, according to industry sources and a new government report, threatening the U.S. bid to revive its human spaceflight program later this year.
Boeing s 1st CST-100 Starliner capsule comes together in prep for commercial crew.
Boeing's 1st CST-100 Starliner capsule comes together in prep for commercial crew.
Photo Credit: Boeing
With SpaceX gearing up for its first scheduled unmanned test flight of the Crew Dragon capsule on March 2, NASA's safety advisory panel cited four "key risk items" in its 2018 annual report earlier this month.
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SpaceX is being paid $2.6 billion and Boeing $4.2 billion to build a rocket and capsule launch system for NASA to return astronauts to space from American soil for the first time since the U.S. Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.
The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), an advisory committee that reports to NASA and Congress, issued its 2018 annual report Friday, February 8. "There are serious challenges to the current launch schedules for both SpaceX and Boeing," the report said.
The White Room  seen here in a construction yard  will be the stepping off point to space for astron...
The White Room, seen here in a construction yard, will be the stepping off point to space for astronauts as they board a Boeing CST-100 Starliner for liftoff on a ULA Atlas V rocket.
NASA/Kim Shiflett
For Boeing, one of the risks cited is their capsule's structural vulnerability when the heat shield is deployed. For SpaceX, the explosion of the Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad in 2016 was again cited — with concerns over the redesign of the rocket canister and its "load and go" process of fueling the rocket with the crew already inside the capsule.
Parachute performance issues were mentioned for both companies as being a risk. While the concerns mentioned would be serious enough, two people with direct knowledge of the program told Reuters that the space agency's concerns go beyond the four items listed.
There is apparently a "risk ledger" that as of early February, contained about 30 to 35 notes on technical concerns that still are raising questions. Reuters could not verify what all the listed items are, but the sources said that SpaceX and Boeing must address most of the problems before flying astronauts into space.
A crew access arm reaches toward SpaceX s first Crew Dragon spacecraft atop its Falcon 9 rocket on L...
A crew access arm reaches toward SpaceX's first Crew Dragon spacecraft atop its Falcon 9 rocket on Launch Pad 39A of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 3, 2019 ahead of an uncrewed test flight.
The risk database or "risk ledger" is routinely used by NASA as part of its certification process, which includes data collection, tests, and collaboration with SpaceX and Boeing, the sources said.
NASA spokesman Joshua Finch deferred all technical questions on Boeing and SpaceX systems to the companies - citing confidentiality. He did say, “Flying safely always takes precedence over schedule," according to CNBC.
Boeing spokesman Josh Barrett said, “Our numbers show we are exceeding NASA’s safety requirements." In turn, SpaceX spokesman James Gleeson said the company - while working with NASA has developed “one of the safest, most-advanced human spaceflight systems ever built.”
"There is nothing more important to SpaceX than safely flying crew," said Gleeson, calling it "core to our company's long-term goal of enabling access for people who dream of flying to space."