LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Members of an independent NASA safety panel said they were worried that the Oct. 11 Soyuz launch failure could make safety concerns with the agency’s commercial crew program even worse.
The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), in a previously scheduled meeting at the Johnson Space Center Oct. 11 only hours after the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft suffered a launch vehicle failure and had to make an emergency landing, said the incident only deepened concerns about the ability of Boeing and SpaceX to adhere to their schedules without jeopardizing safety.
“We have not seen the program make decisions detrimental to safety,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of ASAP, in her opening remarks. “But current projected schedules for uncrewed and crewed test flights for both providers have considerable risk and do not appear achievable.”
“The panel believes that an overconstrained schedule, driven by any real or perceived gap in astronaut transport to the International Space Station and possibly exacerbated by this morning’s events, poses a danger that sound engineering design solutions could be superseded, critical program content could be delayed or deleted, and decisions of ‘good enough to proceed’ could be made on insufficient data,” she argued.
Sanders and other ASAP members said they were skeptical that either Boeing or SpaceX could maintain its current schedules for fielding their commercial crew systems, let alone accelerate them to address a potential gap in ISS access created by the Soyuz failure.
ASAP member Don McErlean outlined several issues that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft needs to overcome, including a lack of a final resolution on the root cause of the failure of a composite overwrapped pressure vessel (COPV) that led to the pad explosion of a Falcon 9 more than two years ago. That is linked, he added, to the use of “load-and-go” fueling of the rocket that would take place, on commercial crew missions, after astronauts have boarded the spacecraft.
“Ultimately, there has to be the acceptance and certification of a configuration which is judged by both parties to be free of the demonstrated characteristics that caused the failure in question,” he said. “This remains an open technical item that the panel believes has to be firmly resolved before we can certainly proceed to crewed launches.”