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article imageNASA warns SpaceX that 'load-and-go' fueling is dangerous

By Karen Graham     May 6, 2018 in Science
When Elon Musk and his team at SpaceX were looking to make their Falcon 9 rocket even more powerful, they came up with a creative idea — keep the propellant at super-cold temperatures to shrink its size, allowing them to pack more of it into the rocket.
The problem with super-cooling the propellant just before loading it into a rocket's tanks means it has to be loaded just 30 minutes before take-off because once the fuel starts to warm up it will expand and then, there is the danger of explosion.
This process, called "load-and-go" also means that in a manned-flight, the crew will already be in the crew capsule while the fuel is being loaded, increasing the risk to the astronauts in the event of an explosion.
Almost six years ago, SpaceX was awarded a $440 million contract to develop a means to transport humans to space for NASA. And so far, the company has only sent cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Then in 2014, SpaceX got another $2.6 billion to send astronauts into space for NASA.
This June 28  2015 grab from NASA TV shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the unmanned Dragon cargo...
This June 28, 2015 grab from NASA TV shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the unmanned Dragon cargo capsule on board appearing to explode shortly after launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida
Concerns over "load-and-go"
Now, with SpaceX prepared to send astronauts into space sometime later this year, a discussion on SpaceX fueling methods that have been going on since 2014 has gained momentum, according to the Washington Post, and members of Congress and NASA safety advisers are warning the "load-and-go" fueling process is a "potential safety risk."
The Chicago Tribune is reporting that a NASA advisory group warned in a letter that the method was "contrary to booster safety criteria that have been in place for over 50 years." The explosion that occurred in 2016 while a Falcon 9 rocket was being fueled for an engine firing test is being used to back up the claims of increased risk to human lives.
The 2016 explosion of the Falcon 9 during an engine test.
The 2016 explosion of the Falcon 9 during an engine test.
And going back to the year before, SpaceX had one of its Falcon 9 rockets bound for the ISS explode just 139 seconds into the mission in 2015, an explosion NASA called an “anomalous event” in a report this year, reports NewsWeek.
Basically, NASA officials and safety experts decided that if a Falcon 9 rocket could explode with cargo aboard, it could also explode with astronauts onboard.
Fueling and the Dragon Crew Capsule
NASA plans to address concerns over the "load-and-go" method as well as other safety concerns at the second quarterly meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, scheduled for May 17, 2018. The meeting will give priority "to those programs that involve the safety of human flight," and will offer updates on the Commercial Crew Program, according to a notice from NASA.
But in a Congressional hearing in January this year, Dr. Hans Koenigsmann, the vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX spoke on the fueling processes SpaceX uses and said that SpaceX actually believes that the "load-and-go" fuelling process is a safer way to fuel.
SpaceX s Dragon spacecraft.
SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft.
© SpaceX
“What we tried to do here is we tried to minimize the time we expose personnel, not just astronauts, but also crew to the hazard of fueling,” Dr. Koenigsmann said during the panel.
“In this particular case, our procedure is actually that we put the astronauts, we strap them in, we make sure they’re comfortable, and then the ground crew retreats and we arm the pad abort system that we’ve already tested. Then we start fueling the main propellants basically within what amounts to half an hour or something like that. So it’s a relatively quick procedure and we believe that this exposure time is the shortest possible and therefore the safest approach,” he told the panel.
It was also noted that SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is outfitted with a nearly instantaneous crew abort system. The safety gear has small engines that jettison the crew capsule away from the rocket in the event of an emergency. The video accompanying this story shows how the Dragon is jettisoned and how it lands.
With SpaceX planning on a manned crew launch later this year, it looks like NASA is getting cold feet and perhaps, overly cautious. But human life is precious, so the agency's fears are understandable. It will be interesting to find out where this latest story leads.
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