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SpaceX Explosion Investigation Could Lead to Safer Astronaut Taxis

Posted: 14 September 2016, 9:10 a.m. EDT

(Image: Participants in the panel discussion, "Commercial Crew Update," on Wednesday, 14 September,
at AIAA SPACE 2016, taking place 13–16 September 2016, in Long Beach, CA.

Panelists: Moderator Kathy Lueders, program manager, Commercial Crew Program, NASA; Benji Reed, director, Crew Mission Management, SpaceX; Chris Ferguson, director and deputy program manager, Crew and Mission Operations, Boeing

by Debra Werner, Aerospace America contributing writer

When investigators pinpoint the cause of the Sept. 1 explosion of a SpaceX rocket on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, NASA and SpaceX will use that information to make future astronaut transportation missions safer.

“When we understand what happened, we will fold that back in to make the system more reliable, more safe,” said Benji Reed, SpaceX director of crew mission management, speaking Sept. 14 at the “Commercial Crew Update” forum at AIAA SPACE 2016 in Long Beach, California.

NASA always has learned lessons from mishaps, said Kathy Lueders, NASA program manager for the Commercial Crew Program, an initiative to help companies develop commercial astronaut taxis and then rely on the taxis to ferry crews to and from the international space station.

“We will work together to make sure all the lessons we learn are wrapped into our assessment and ultimately our certification of the systems,” she said.

In spite of the rocket explosion, SpaceX remains focused on its goal of beginning to transport astronauts within the next couple years.

“Our goal is to fly as quickly and safely as we can,” Reed said. “The goal is to fly in 2018.”

Both Reed and former astronaut Chris Ferguson, Boeing’s deputy program manager and deputy director of crew and mission operations, cautioned that neither company will begin carrying astronauts until the vehicles complete an extensive testing and certification process.


(Image Credit: Associated Press–©)

Boeing plans to conduct an orbital flight test in December 2017 of its CST-100 Starliner, followed by a flight test with crew on board in February 2018 and its first two NASA crew transportation missions in June and August of that same year.

“We are optimistic we will meet those deadlines, but if it takes a couple of extra months to make sure we have a safe vehicle, we will wait,” Ferguson said. “We will fly when we are ready.”

Reed declined to provide a detailed timeline of SpaceX’s testing schedule but said the firm is continuing to test the parachutes it will use to lower the Dragon 2 capsule into the ocean on the capsule’s return trip and is conducting extensive propulsion testing.

Before either the Starliner or Dragon 2 carries astronauts, NASA will ask company officials “to stand up and assert they are going to deliver our crews safely,” Lueders said. “From a NASA perspective, we are going to do the right work to assure ourselves that the work [Boeing and SpaceX] are doing to deliver our crews is an acceptable risk to take.”

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Dates to Remember

  • Abstract Deadline: 08 Feb 2018
  • Manuscript Deadline: 16 Aug 2018
  • Early Bird Reg Deadline: 27 Aug 2018
  • Cancellation Deadline: 04 Sep 2018

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