SpaceX swears that it’s done with all the delays, and it will be ready to fly a crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in April of next year. Until now, it wasn’t clear how the day’s events would go. NASA has selected the crewmen for the mission but was apprehensive about letting them remain aboard the rocket during fueling. SpaceX and NASA have apparently come to an understanding, and the crew will board the Dragon 2 capsule prior to the fueling operation.
So, why all the concern over when SpaceX puts fuel in its rocket? You might recall about two years ago when SpaceX was due to launch a Facebook communications satellite. However, the rocket exploded during the fueling operation. Although, CEO Elon Musk insisted what we saw was just a “very fast fire,” as if that matters.
The explosion (or fast fire) did not affect a NASA payload, but it happened on Kennedy Space Center launch pad 39A. Emergency personnel scrambled to extinguish the flames before the facility suffered damage. SpaceX rented the space from NASA, and it’s where all crewed missions will launch. NASA was understandably concerned, even after SpaceX identified the helium tank as the cause of the failure and changed its designs.
SpaceX designed its pre-launch activities assuming the crew would already be in the Dragon capsule before fueling, but NASA was no longer comfortable with that. It took two years of discussions, but NASA has agreed to let astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley board the spacecraft two hours before launch. SpaceX will then pipe liquid fuel into the rocket. However, NASA didn’t just roll over for SpaceX — the agency has some conditions.
Before even considering to SpaceX’s process, NASA conducted a new review of the launch vehicle design and ground launch operations. It will also require a new round of verification and demonstrations of the fueling process before the agency gives the go-ahead for the manned flight. A critical factor in SpaceX’s favor is that there have been no further fueling anomalies.
It’s definitely in NASA’s best interest to make sure SpaceX can get its rocket into service soon. Boeing is reportedly looking at more delays after a recent fuel leak, and the agency is running out of reserved seats on Russian Soyuz capsules. A recent government report expresses skepticism that either Boeing or SpaceX will keep up with the current schedule, but a lot could still go wrong between now and April.
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