from the space-is-risky dept.
An independent safety panel recommended NASA not certify SpaceX's commercial crew system until the agency better understands the behavior of pressure vessels linked to a Falcon 9 failure in 2016. That recommendation was one of the stronger items in the annual report of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released by NASA Jan. 11, which found that NASA was generally managing risk well on its various programs.
The report devoted a section to the composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) used to store helium in the second stage propellant tanks of the Falcon 9. The investigation into the September 2016 pad explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 while being prepared for a static-fire test concluded that liquid oxygen in the tank got trapped between the COPV overwrap and liner and then ignited through friction or other mechanisms.
SpaceX has since changed its loading processes to avoid exposing the COPVs to similar conditions, but also agreed with NASA to redesign the COPV to reduce the risk for crewed launches. NASA has since started a "rigorous test program" to understand how the redesigned COPV behaves when exposed to liquid oxygen, the report stated. ASAP argued that completing those tests is essential before NASA can allow its astronauts to launch on the Falcon 9. "In our opinion, adequate understanding of the COPV behavior in cryogenic oxygen is an absolutely essential precursor to potential certification for human space flight," the report stated, a sentence italicized for emphasis in the report.
[...] The report raised issues in general about the commercial crew program, including concerns that neither Boeing nor SpaceX, the two companies developing vehicles to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, will meet a requirement of no greater than a 1-in-270 "loss of crew" (LOC) risk of an accident that causes death or serious injury to a crewmember. That includes, the report stated, a risk of no more than 1 in 500 for launch and reentry.
Both programs are likely to be delayed:
During a cabinet meeting on Thursday inside the White House, President Donald Trump called attention to several model rockets on the table before him. They included an Atlas V, a Falcon 9, a Space Launch System, and more. The president seemed enthused to see the launch vehicles. "Before me are some rocket ships," the president said. "You haven't seen that for this country in a long time."
Then, in remarks probably best characterized as spur of the moment, the president proceeded to absolutely demolish the government's own effort to build rockets by noting the recent launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket. He cited the cost as $80 million. (The list price on SpaceX's website is $90 million.)
"I noticed the prices of the last one they say cost $80 million," Trump said. "If the government did it, the same thing would have cost probably 40 or 50 times that amount of money. I mean literally. When I heard $80 million, I'm so used to hearing different numbers with NASA.''
NASA has not, in fact, set a price for flying the SLS rocket. But Ars has previously estimated that, including the billions of dollars in development cost, the per-flight fees for the SLS rocket will probably be close to $3 billion. Indeed, the development costs of SLS and its ground systems between now and its first flight could purchase 86 launches of the privately developed Falcon Heavy rocket. So President Trump's estimate of NASA's costs compared to private industry does not appear to be wildly off the mark.
[*] SLS: Space Launch System
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NASA Announces Astronauts for First Commercial Crew Missions
Today, NASA announced the astronaut selection for the first Commercial Crew flights, which will finally restore the ability to launch astronauts from American soil. Boeing's first test flight, which is scheduled for mid-2019, will have Eric Boe, social media-savvy astronaut Chris Ferguson and rookie Nicole Aunapu Mann on board. SpaceX's inaugural Crew Dragon voyage, targeting April 2019, will have Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins as crew.
NASA also announced the astronauts for the first missions, which will be long-duration and dock with the International Space Station. Suni Williams, who is best known for running the Boston Marathon on an ISS treadmill, will be joined by rookie astronaut Josh Cassada. And finally, the second SpaceX demo flight will be crewed by Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
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