Washington Post: NASA To Conduct Safety Review at SpaceX and Boeing

Washington Post: NASA To Conduct Safety Review at SpaceX and Boeing

The Washington Post reported today that NASA is initiating a safety review of its two commercial crew contractors, SpaceX and Boeing.  The newspaper attributes the decision to NASA officials who were disquieted by recent behavior by SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk.  Both contractors are getting close to conducting flight tests of their new systems to take crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Whether the safety reviews will affect those schedules is unclear.

NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing to build new crew space transportation systems as public-private partnerships in 2014.  SpaceX was awarded $2.6 billion for its Falcon 9/Crew Dragon system, while Boeing got $4.2 billion for its Atlas V/Starliner.  The most recent schedule is for the SpaceX uncrewed flight test to take place in January 2019 and the crewed flight test in June 2019.  Boeing’s uncrewed flight test is scheduled for March 2019 and the crewed flight test in August 2019.

The “months-long” safety review will begin next year and look at the safety culture at the companies and involve “hundreds of interviews” according to the Post.

Elon Musk during a TED talk, April 2017. Screengrab.

The Post quotes NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier as confirming that the review will take place, although the reasons for it are attributed to three unnamed sources.  The latter are reported as saying images of Musk as he “took a hit of marijuana and sipped whiskey” during a livestreamed podcast triggered the concern.  That happened over two months ago, though.

In a statement, SpaceX said human spaceflight is its “core mission” and there is “nothing more important to SpaceX than this endeavor … For years, our engineers have worked side-by-side with NASA, creating a strong partnership and guiding the development of Crew Dragon — one of the safest, most-advanced human spaceflight systems ever built.” It is “confident that our comprehensive drug-free workforce and workplace programs exceed all applicable contractual requirements.”

The review applies to Boeing as well. It said in a statement that the “culture at Boeing ensures the integrity, safety and quality of our products, our people and their work environment. As NASA’s trusted partner since the beginning of human spaceflight, we share the same values and are committed to continuing our legacy of trust, openness and mission success.”

The point of the review is to ensure the systems are as safe as possible.  The article quotes Bridenstine as saying the American people need to know that “when we put an astronaut on a rocket, they’ll be safe.”

Veteran space reporter Eric Berger of Ars Technia pointed out that the last two crew launches to ISS had their own problems and perhaps more attention needs to be paid to the safety culture in Russia, which builds and launches the Soyuz rockets and spacecraft that currently take crews to and from ISS.

The Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft was discovered to be the source of a leak aboard the ISS because a mysterious hole was drilled into its hull.  The October 11 launch of the Soyuz MS-10 crew was aborted when a side-mounted booster did not detach properly and hit the core stage about two minutes after launch. Automated systems instantly separated the crew capsule from the rest of the rocket and the two-person crew landed safely.  NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, are planning to launch the next crew on December 3, less than two months after the failure, confident the problem has been identified and remedied.

In a later tweet, he suggested this is all about politics.

NASA did not respond by press time to a request to confirm the Post’s report.

NASA relies on SpaceX to launch cargo missions to the ISS — the next is scheduled for December 4.  Just two weeks ago, NASA’s Launch Services Program awarded SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket its top rating, Category 3, which allows it to be used for launching NASA’s most expensive robotic satellites. The process for certifying the commercial crew system is separate, however.

As Boeing’s statement says, it (including its legacy companies) has been engaged in NASA’s human spaceflight program since the beginning.  It is the prime contractor for ISS.  The United Launch Alliance, which builds and launches the Atlas V rocket, is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.  Atlas V has been used for years to launch NASA’s most expensive robotic spacecraft.

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