Nasa is pressuring SpaceX and its embattled CEO Elon Musk to fix rocket design and safety issues that could keep the U.S space program grounded firmly on Earth.
The government space agency took SpaceX to task in its 2018 annual report released this month, noting four “key risks” to the rocket and capsule system designed by Musk and his staff, according to Reuters. Those and other risks present “serious challenges” to SpaceX’s launch schedule, including a possible manned flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft this summer.
One of those risks is SpaceX’s rocket canister, which has been redesigned since one caused a devastating explosion in 2016 after bursting inside a Falcon 9 rocket’s liquid oxygen tank. The eruption during routine pre-flight testing destroyed the rocket and its $200 million cargo: a Spacecom communications satellite.
According to the NASA report, SpaceX is also facing challenges with its parachute system and concerns related to its “load and go” rocket fueling process. However, those appear to be just a small sampling of the many challenges facing Musk & Co.
SpaceX Has Dozens of Technical Concerns to Tackle
A laundry list of 30-35 technical concerns surrounding SpaceX’s project existed as of earlier this month according to Reuters sources. Unless “most” of those issues are dealt with the sources say, SpaceX can forget about transporting anyone into orbit.
SpaceX was awarded a $2.6 billion contract from NASA in 2014 to build the Crew Dragon 2 manned spacecraft and a rocket capable of launching it and everything aboard to the International Space Station (ISS). A manned launch hasn’t taken off from U.S soil since 2011, when space shuttle Atlantis returned from space for the 33rd and final time.
NASA plans to begin sending humans into space again by next year and has already named the first nine astronauts who will be given that honor. However, SpaceX’s progress has been delayed numerous times since 2014, pushing the project two years and counting behind its intended 2017 completion.
Rival competitor Boeing is mired in similar difficulties, struggling through the same delays and still facing several “key risks” and technical challenges of its own according to the NASA report.
The space agency awarded the two competing contracts at the same time to offset the risk of one of them failing to deliver. Now, NASAis facing the reality that both may come up short by a critical deadline later this year.
NASA Considering Backup Plans to Prevent ISS Reaching “Inoperable State”
NASA has used the Russian space program to ferry its own astronauts to the ISS since 2011. That will no longer be possible after this year, with the seats being unavailable. Nevertheless, NASA has begun checking out its options, including reaching out to Russia to see if maybe, just maybe, it’s not too late to buy a couple seats on the Soyuz after all.
NASA was rather ominous in its procurement order pitch to Roscosmos, telling its Russian colleagues that the ISS would be reduced to an “inoperable state” without a U.S crew member aboard.
“The consequences of no US crew on ISS warrant protection by acquiring additional seats. The absence of US crew members at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state,” the procurement order reads.
Unmanned Test of Crew Dragon Spacecraft Imminent
The challenges that remain before SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is given the green light for manned missions are not delaying an imminent unmanned test of the craft. The shuttle will attempt a supply run to the ISS beginning on March 2. It’s expected to dock with the ISS on March 3 and splash down in the Pacific Ocean five days after that.
An unmanned test of Boeing’s Starliner craft won’t be possible until at least April. The aerospace giant is also slightly behind Elon Musk’s company in terms of their first scheduled manned flights. SpaceX has a July target for its first manned flight, Boeing an August one.
How to Watch SpaceX’s Historic Spacecraft Launch Live
Prepare to get up very early (or stay up very late) on Saturday, March 2, if you want to watch the Crew Dragon, rocketed into space live on NASA TV. It’s scheduled to do so at 2:48 am EST.
NASA’s live stream is also chronicling other events leading up to and following blast off, which will be the first time a shuttle capable of carrying humans into space has been launched by a commercial venture. Elon Musk and his team can certainly be proud of that accomplishment and for their daring vision to drag humanity somewhat reluctantly into the space age.
A post-flight readiness review briefing will be shown on the live stream February 22 as well as a prelaunch briefing on February 28. The Crew Dragon docking with the ISS can be seen on March 3, while its swan dive into the Pacific will be shown March 8.
Musk Focusing on Work As Tesla, SpaceX Challenges Mount
As CCN reported on February 17, Musk hasn’t been involved in the OpenAI research project in over a year. He tweeted the reasoning behind his split from the group on February 16, noting his disagreements with some of the group members’ goals and the need to focus on the “painfully large number” of manufacturing challenges at SpaceX and Tesla.
I had to focus on solving a painfully large number of engineering & manufacturing problems at Tesla (especially) & SpaceX
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 17, 2019
SpaceX is now confronting those challenges with a slimmed-down workforce, announcing the axing of about 10% of its 6,000 employees back in January. Hundreds of technicians and engineers from the company’s Hawthorne headquarters were among those given their pink slips.
SpaceX hasn’t missed a beat yet, carrying out a successful test of its new Starship Raptor rocket earlier this month.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 4, 2019
The next-generation rocket will replace the Falcon 9 and two other SpaceX rockets, with its ultimate goal being to power a shuttle all the way to Mars.
Musk Puts Foot in Mouth on Twitter Again
In addition to his hectic schedule, the billionaire South African has also been mired in personal controversies. He has a storied history of ill-advised tweets under his belt that was added to this week when he sent out inaccurate Tesla production numbers.
After initially tweeting that Tesla would “make around 500K vehicles in 2019”, Musk backtracked, claiming that he meant something else entirely and that the electric automaker would only deliver 400K this year.
Meant to say annualized production rate at end of 2019 probably around 500k, ie 10k cars/week. Deliveries for year still estimated to be about 400k.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 20, 2019
This isn’t the first time Musk has been scolded by NASA either. The agency frowned upon his infamous pot-smoking episode on Joe Rogan’s podcast last September, demanding a safety review of both SpaceX and Boeing shortly afterwards.
Three officials later told the Washington Post that the probe was initiated by Nasa higher-ups who saw Musk smoking pot and drinking whiskey on the podcast and had concerns about the culture at SpaceX.