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posted by Fnord666 on Sunday January 14 2018, @06:53PM   Printer-friendly
from the space-is-risky dept.

Safety panel raises concerns about Falcon 9 pressure vessel for commercial crew missions

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:

Boeing, SpaceX have razor-thin margins to fly crew missions in 2018


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  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by bradley13 on Sunday January 14 2018, @07:14PM (26 children)

    by bradley13 (3053) Subscriber Badge on Sunday January 14 2018, @07:14PM (#622237) Homepage Journal

    "a risk of no more than 1 in 500 for launch and reentry."

    This is the problem. Western society has become totally risk averse. An astronaut flies a mission, what, once every two years? So assuming a 20 year career, that means at most 10 missions? So they are aiming for less than 2% mortality over the course of a career. That puts them in roughly the same danger category as farmers.

    That's too damned safe. This is a huge part of what makes spaceflight too expensive. This is why we are not making any progress. Imagine pioneers in earlier ages saying to themselves "oh dear, we can't go, it might be dangerous" - we would all still be living in stick huts in Africa.

    What will happen, of course, is that some other country - likely China at this point - will see the potential of owning the high ground, and will get serious about space exploitation. There are more than enough people willing to risk their lives on new frontiers - there always have been. The West will be left wondering what happened. Sort of like the once-great British empire, and the rather pathetic little country that is now talking about banning kitchen knives [express.co.uk] as too dangerous.

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 14 2018, @07:29PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 14 2018, @07:29PM (#622243)

    still be living in stick huts in Africa.

    Africans are wiser than you because all they need do to get technology is sit and wait for busy fools to invent it for them.

  • (Score: 4, Insightful) by frojack on Sunday January 14 2018, @08:04PM (17 children)

    by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Sunday January 14 2018, @08:04PM (#622255) Journal

    Too damned safe?

    1 in 500 is worse odds [fool.com] and Airforce or Navy combat pilots face, and higher than all combat deaths. Almost every other job death rate is measured in deaths per 100,000 workers.

    SpaceX has spent more time perfecting rocket return and landing than safe crew delivery.

    Half the people here just hand waive into existence the ability to land on mars, mine the asteroids, build colonies on the moon.

    A no greater than a 1-in-270 "loss of crew" is a ridiculously low bar for a profession some people around here insist must become commonplace.

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    • (Score: 4, Insightful) by takyon on Sunday January 14 2018, @08:12PM (2 children)

      by takyon (881) <takyonNO@SPAMsoylentnews.org> on Sunday January 14 2018, @08:12PM (#622256) Journal

      Can these odds even be effectively measured? Most space accidents seem to be caused by one-time design problems which are discovered and fixed in the aftermath. The low launch rate (of an individual rocket+spacecraft, or the industry overall) contributes to the uncertainty. Previous accidents hurt the record (SpaceX's two worst explosions get brought up constantly) but make future craft safer.

      What could be safer? Single-stage-to-orbit spaceplanes? Abandonment of chemical rockets altogether in some EmDrive/stolen UFO scenario?

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      • (Score: 2, Interesting) by tftp on Sunday January 14 2018, @09:22PM (1 child)

        by tftp (806) on Sunday January 14 2018, @09:22PM (#622273) Homepage

        Abandonment of chemical rockets altogether in some EmDrive/stolen UFO scenario?

        Something like that. Chemical rockets are a dead end anyway because they are too inefficient and too expensive. They are dangerous because we have to work with huge energies that are contained in materials that are unsafe even on their own. Spaceflight on chemical rockets cannot become a path to somewhere for the people. It can be only a narrow, dangerous road for researchers who don't mind sitting atop a flying bomb.

        Would be nice to have an elevator to orbit, but chances are that we won't be capable of producing and installing it until we don't need it.

        If we do not invent the technologies to, say, fly within the gravity field of the planet, we have little chance of conquering other planets. Other worlds are large planets, and there will be only few teams on them. They will need a flying vehicle that can fly half the planet on single tank of fuel, hover and land anywhere (VTOL) and be very reliable. No service for tens of flights! Of course, it should not depend on atmosphere - even in our system we have quite a variety of those. People say that the martian colony starts with a base, and then sends crawlers with scientists up to several thousand miles away. Aside from lack of such efficient machines, those crews are playing with death. There are no comm or gps sats around Mars and no plans to deploy them. There is no (?) ionosphere that supports SW hops. UHF goes straight through. How will they call for help? How soon they will be saved? This is why flying vehicles are essential for study of a planet. They also cover huge distances that no crawler can.

        As it stands, all current plans of manned presence in space resemble ill equipped individuals, alone attacking Everest. This rarely works. Sensible space exploration requires many technologies (robots, engines, controlled fusion) that we do not have yet. It only makes sense to go back to the drawing board and invent what we need rather than to pave the planets with dead bodies of pioneers. There is no emergency, Moon and Mars aren't going anywhere in nearest 100 years. There is no benefit trying to set up there right now.

        • (Score: 1, Troll) by Ethanol-fueled on Sunday January 14 2018, @10:54PM

          by Ethanol-fueled (2792) on Sunday January 14 2018, @10:54PM (#622307) Homepage

          The problem was that these are California hipsters we're dealing with and they think that carbon fiber is the solution to all of their problems just because their yuppie bicycles and twice-used stand-up paddleboards have the carbon fiber wrap.

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Sunday January 14 2018, @09:05PM (13 children)

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Sunday January 14 2018, @09:05PM (#622269) Journal
      Doesn't make sense to speak of such odds for a vehicle that probably won't fly 500 times. For example, if your vehicle only flies 20 times, then there could be a 5% loss of crew risk in there and you wouldn't know of it due to just being lucky. Meanwhile flying 500 times and not seeing loss of crew due to said 5% risk is luck on the order of winning lotteries.
      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 14 2018, @10:54PM (6 children)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 14 2018, @10:54PM (#622308)

        So the 50/50 odds for a coin toss don't make any sense unless we are going to sit there and flip the damn coin one hundred times? Methinks someone is lacking a basic understanding of probability.

        • (Score: 4, Touché) by takyon on Sunday January 14 2018, @11:31PM

          by takyon (881) <takyonNO@SPAMsoylentnews.org> on Sunday January 14 2018, @11:31PM (#622318) Journal

          1. We don't know the real odds before it launches.
          2. It won't launch often enough for us to determine the real odds. Space Launch System has 12 planned launches [wikipedia.org] over a 14 year period. Only 7 of them will be crewed, and three of the launches will be on the second main variant of the design, Block 2. There's probably not enough coin flips for disaster to strike.

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        • (Score: 3, Informative) by khallow on Monday January 15 2018, @12:47AM (4 children)

          by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 15 2018, @12:47AM (#622337) Journal
          You don't understand the problem. An assertion has been made about the reliability of the coin. How do you check that the assertion is correct - particularly when cutting corners and deception can be involved? N coin tosses would be enough to verify the coin is with about 100%/sqrt(N) of 50%, so a range of 40% to 60%. To get the bias of the coin to within 1 in 500 throws, you need roughly 500^2 = 250,000 throws to confirm that the bias is within the desired range.

          As to manned space flight, it hasn't happened often enough to bother with a 1 in 500 LOC rate. We've only had 320 crewed launches since the beginning of space exploration. There is no basis for asserting such a high reliability. We could, for example, have several 1 in 500 LOC risks that apply to every manned launch ever made, that just haven't happened yet. In the face of that level of ignorance, it makes no sense to demand high standards of reliability.
          • (Score: 4, Interesting) by JoeMerchant on Monday January 15 2018, @04:58AM (3 children)

            by JoeMerchant (3937) on Monday January 15 2018, @04:58AM (#622431)

            You're right that we're ignorant of the "true" (better stated as "statistically reliable") rates of failure in use: insufficient data.

            You're wrong that attempting to design for high standards of reliability is senseless. It's quite expensive to train new astronauts and build replacement vehicles, not to mention politically difficult to fund a program that makes us look foolish and incompetent.

            When there's insufficient test-trial data to base failure rate analysis on, the engineers pull numbers out of any convenient orifice and throw them into a risk management table - in med devices there's a whole standardized ISO procedure for doing just that. The "guess" numbers are tossed around between the best experts available until they reach consensus - the process is documented as a design review, and we move on to the next problem. I imagine in NASA's manned programs they include such available data as they have to inform their guesses. You'd be surprised at just how valuable these risk management processes turn out to be, even when the best experts available can't point to massive records of previous experience.

            Even the Space Shuttle managed to successfully take off and land in 132 of 134 tries. You don't get to that level of reliability without designing for it.

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            • (Score: 1) by khallow on Monday January 15 2018, @07:53AM (2 children)

              by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 15 2018, @07:53AM (#622488) Journal

              You're wrong that attempting to design for high standards of reliability is senseless. It's quite expensive to train new astronauts and build replacement vehicles, not to mention politically difficult to fund a program that makes us look foolish and incompetent.

              It can be worse than senseless. For example, such design can actually introduce risks that are higher than the ones that the effort is trying to reduce. It can also create moral hazards and other systemic or behavior problems that increase risk.

              Even the Space Shuttle managed to successfully take off and land in 132 of 134 tries. You don't get to that level of reliability without designing for it.

              And having a few dozen manned launches already under one's belt.

              • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 15 2018, @08:40AM (1 child)

                by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 15 2018, @08:40AM (#622490)

                t can also create moral hazards

                Say what?
                And you didn't even mentioned ethical hazards.

                • (Score: 1) by khallow on Monday January 15 2018, @07:02PM

                  by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 15 2018, @07:02PM (#622665) Journal
                  It's an economics term and while it has some relevance to morality and ethics, it's just a label. Moral hazard [wikipedia.org] means merely that when someone is protected from the consequences of risk, they tend to engage in riskier behavior. For example, people who drive rental cars tend to be more careless with them than if they were their own cars. The consequences of minor scratches and dings are far less significant when one doesn't have to look at it for years or pay for repairs. In turn, this creates elevated risks for the party that intentionally rents out these vehicles. The moral hazard isn't for the driver, but for the rental business (and perhaps the outside world) that is subject to these increased risks.
      • (Score: 2) by frojack on Monday January 15 2018, @01:25AM (5 children)

        by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 15 2018, @01:25AM (#622356) Journal

        20 times?

        There were 135 space shuttle missions. About 146 Soyuz missions counting all Soyuz models.
        With SpaceX bringing the price of a launch down you can expect the capsules being developed now to have a long service life, including flying multiple missions in the same vehicle.

        Just after the Challenger disaster the entire US space program had a 4% fatality rating, which quickly dropped until the Columbia ramped it up again. Its been declining ever since.

        The only reason NASA want's to restrict commercial providers to no better than 1 in 270, is that is just about their overall record.

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        • (Score: 2, Interesting) by khallow on Monday January 15 2018, @02:38AM (4 children)

          by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 15 2018, @02:38AM (#622374) Journal
          It's an example. NASA has had 171 manned missions since the beginning, 2 which resulted in loss of crew. That's nowhere near 1 in 270.
          • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 15 2018, @05:12AM (3 children)

            by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 15 2018, @05:12AM (#622435)

            2 which resulted in loss of crew. That's nowhere near 1 in 270.

            Apollo 1 doesn't count, I guess?

            • (Score: 1) by khallow on Monday January 15 2018, @06:45AM (2 children)

              by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 15 2018, @06:45AM (#622472) Journal

              Apollo 1 doesn't count, I guess?

              Correct, it wasn't a launch.

              • (Score: 2) by choose another one on Monday January 15 2018, @09:22AM

                by choose another one (515) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 15 2018, @09:22AM (#622499)

                Correct, it wasn't a launch.

                Umm, nor was the SpaceX COPV explosion being talked about in TFA - it was during fueling for static fire test.

                If we don't count pre-launch failures on the pad then SpaceX's record suddenly looks awful lot better.
                If we do, NASA's record looks worse.

                That is one of the problems when you have very little data - tweaking definitions ever so slightly to exclude or include one event can make a massive difference to your "safety record".

              • (Score: 2) by dry on Monday January 15 2018, @08:10PM

                by dry (223) on Monday January 15 2018, @08:10PM (#622698) Journal

                It showed a lot of design problems that would have in all probability led to flight failures. In some ways it was lucky that it failed when it did as it forced the engineers to consider things like is it smart to use a 100% oxygen environment combined with lots of flammable materials as well as simple design decisions such as how the door opens.

  • (Score: 5, Informative) by maxwell demon on Sunday January 14 2018, @08:52PM (4 children)

    by maxwell demon (1608) on Sunday January 14 2018, @08:52PM (#622268) Journal

    With 2 fatal failures in 135 missions, the Space Shuttle didn't even come close to those figures.

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    • (Score: 2) by frojack on Monday January 15 2018, @01:26AM (1 child)

      by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 15 2018, @01:26AM (#622357) Journal

      You counting deaths or vehicle here?

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      • (Score: 2) by maxwell demon on Monday January 15 2018, @07:11AM

        by maxwell demon (1608) on Monday January 15 2018, @07:11AM (#622483) Journal

        Vehicles. With deaths, it would be an even worse statistics because IIRC both times there were 7 astronauts on board, while there were plenty shuttle missions with less than 7 astronauts.

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    • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Monday January 15 2018, @04:44AM (1 child)

      by JoeMerchant (3937) on Monday January 15 2018, @04:44AM (#622428)

      I moved to Houston in 2003, the tasteless joke of the day was: What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts.

      14 deaths in 135 missions is not a great track record. I'd much rather see a heterogeneous program flying multiple designs and continually refining for improvement, instead of fixing up 20 year old space-pickup-trucks to be used again and again. I drive 20+ year old cars, lots of "interesting" things happen when you try to use a big, complex machine that long, especially when you push the performance envelope with hot turbo pumps & similar things. Interesting in a bad way, if your life depends on it.

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      • (Score: 2) by takyon on Monday January 15 2018, @07:04AM

        by takyon (881) <takyonNO@SPAMsoylentnews.org> on Monday January 15 2018, @07:04AM (#622481) Journal

        We need an alien enemy. Then we can throw military assets in space without worrying about a Cold War on Earth, and it will be totally OK if 1.4-3.3% of the astronauts die, or even ten times that.

        #JWST #SETI #Search4EnemiesToIncinerate

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  • (Score: 2) by beckett on Sunday January 14 2018, @09:36PM

    by beckett (1115) on Sunday January 14 2018, @09:36PM (#622279)

    That's too damned safe. This is a huge part of what makes spaceflight too expensive.

    there is also the matter of high dollar payloads, orbital vehicles, satellites, as well as the significant onboarding cost of training and maintaining human astronauts. being risk adverse with high value assets seems to be a prudent strategy considering the resources for both human and non-human assets.

    some other country - likely China at this point

    If another country takes the risk, then I don't see any problems with this, and you should also embrace their efforts to move the state of the art forward. Or are you still fighting a jingoistic cold war and fighting red commies in your head, an insist on stars and stripes on every launch vehicle? You imply nationalism in your post when you talk about a "pathetic little" country, but otoh your arguments are provincial.

  • (Score: 3, Informative) by JoeMerchant on Monday January 15 2018, @04:36AM

    by JoeMerchant (3937) on Monday January 15 2018, @04:36AM (#622427)

    So, while I generally agree with the water-skiing cliche': if you never wipe out, you're not trying hard enough... on the other hand, you wouldn't catch me boarding any vehicle that puts LOx in contact with composite materials as described in the summary - that's un-necessary risk.

    There's plenty of risks from unknown unknowns in spaceflight, when we get manned missions out of LEO again, we're going to hit plenty of those... no need to add additional risk from known issues that can be addressed in design. Also, a design risk of no more than 1/500 is just asking everybody's best guess to come out to better than 0.2%, not guaranteeing anything about actual risk.

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