SpaceX Should NOT Carry Astronauts to Space – At Least Not Yet  

By Michael J Daugherty

 

On Fridayafter facing a delay due to an automatic abort, Elon Musk’s SpaceX tested its Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket for the first time. This is supposed to be the first Musk rocket that will carry astronauts on board, and the company projects that it will be used at least 10 times.

Currently, the company is slated to begin crewed test flights in December, a date that I cannot help but think NASA should consider pushing back due to unresolved security concerns.

Last week, the Washington Post ran an article titled “Elon Musk’s SpaceX is using a powerful rocket technology. NASA advisers say it could put lives at risk.” Many of the experts interviewed believe that SpaceX’s current standard operating procedures sideswipe decades worth of NASA safety precedents and do not seem enthused about the prospect of the company ferrying astronauts to the stars. And to be fair, they have every reason to be skeptical. 

In December, the Department of Defense Inspector General issued a report that found 181 deviations from quality standards at the Big Three space contractors’ sites. While the investigators found Aerojet Rocketdyne and the United Launch Alliance also have some problems, SpaceX boasted 33 of the total 68 significant contractor nonconformities. 

Among the issues found were “an inadequately protected Merlin engine on the test stand” – the same type of engine that was involved in a November explosion – as well as “bottles of soda and personal items in FOD-controlled areas.” As a Forbes article put it, the report also mentioned how Musk’s company “failed to comply with requirements for reviewing designs, selecting suppliers, documenting program changes, calibrating tools, and monitoring product acceptance criteria.” 

Clearly, these are not exactly the type of things you want to see from a contractor that is expecting to launch astronauts into space this year. Still, this hasn’t stopped some space enthusiasts from clamoring for NASA to take more risks. Among them is Robert Lightfoot, a former NASA acting administrator who called for more leniency in process in his final major speech before retiring. 

“I worry, to be perfectly honest, if we would have ever launched Apollo in our environment today … if Buzz [Aldrin] and Neil [Armstrong] would have ever been able to go to the moon in the risk environment we have today,” he saidHis main worry appears to be that the systematizing of NASA procedures dilutes the value of contractors’ technology – or, as he put it, makes everything more about the process than the product.”

I strongly disagree. While scientific and technological progress is necessaryneither should ever trump the safety of astronauts or the citizenry at large. After all, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board found that NASA’s failure to heed to the lessons learned from the fatality-causing Challenger explosion in 1986 – a failure caused from a “broken safety culture” – is the reason seven more crew members perished in 2003. 

Currently, NASA’s rule is that the chance of death for any mission cannot be larger than 1 in every 270 flights. For many analysts, even this number seems too large. But in any case, NASA should not relax it just for the sake of bolstering scientific experimentation and exploration.

This set rule will not necessarily prevent SpaceX from ever sending humans into space. In fact, per a January report from NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, NASA and SpaceX are making significant cooperative progress in fixing a major problem concerning heliutanks – tanks which were likely to blame for its 2016 explosion. NASA is currently testing the redesigned product, which the advisory panel believes is “the most critical step in clearing…for human space flight.”

However, the worst thing NASA could do is jump the gun here. Once the agency completes its tests, SpaceX must still “develop a proper qualification program” so “NASA can decide on the acceptability of the hazard controls and residual risk.” Some individuals may not like the 1:270 requirement put in place, but it is there for a reason. Haste almost always breeds waste. We cannot afford to let Impatience run our national security strategy a muck.

There is no denying that Elon Musk and SpaceX are great at putting on shows and generating media headlines. Friday’s Block 5 test launch is a testament to that. But let’s get our heads out of the stars and face reality. Theatrics should never come before safety. The safety advisory panel recommended delating the certification of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 crewed missions for a reason and NASA would be foolish not to heed to its warning calls.  


Michael J. Daugherty is a director at The National Cybersecurity Society and a board member at Netshield Corp. He is the author of “The Devil Inside the Beltway: The Shocking Expose of the U.S. Government’s Surveillance and Overreach Into Cybersecurity, Medicine and Small Business.” 

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by EagleRising.com


About the author

Michael J Daugherty

Michael J. Daugherty is a director at The National Cybersecurity Society and a board member at Netshield Corp. He is the author of "The Devil Inside the Beltway: The Shocking Expose of the U.S. Government's Surveillance and Overreach Into Cybersecurity, Medicine and Small Business."

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