The rap on NASA is that it’s risk-averse, stuck in the old ways of doing things, stymied by a big 60-year-old bureaucracy that was chastened by two fatal space shuttle disasters.
That was the mind-set that seemed to greet SpaceX’s controversial fueling plan. Instead of filling the rocket with propellant before the astronauts board, the company proposed doing it after.
Loading a combustible mix of propellants underneath NASA’s finest set off alarms inside some parts of the agency and among safety experts, who warned that it was contrary to decades of spaceflight procedure. One watchdog group called it a “potential safety risk” — a spark during fueling could set off an explosion, many in NASA feared. That’s what happened when a SpaceX rocket blew up while being fueled in 2016.
But then NASA recently announced that it would allow SpaceX’s fueling procedure, informally known as “load and go,” under the condition that the company demonstrate it five times before receiving formal certification. The decision was a significant one for NASA and signals an ongoing cultural shift as the agency partners with a growing commercial space industry that thrives on pushing boundaries.
NASA’s evolution has been years in the making, officials said, as it grows more comfortable giving industry more autonomy and freedom, which many hope will spark the kind of innovation necessary to make spaceflight more routine.
Over the years, it has developed deep partnerships with several companies, awarding them billions of dollars in contracts to carry out crucial services. Under the George W. Bush administration, NASA decided to hire contractors — SpaceX and Orbital ATK — to fly cargo and supplies to the International Space Station.
Then, under President Barack Obama, it awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to fly crews there, with the first flights expected next year. In doing so, the agency allowed the companies to build, design and operate their spacecraft. And while NASA laid out a list of requirements that the companies must meet, it did not dictate how they should meet them.
Being able to rely on private companies to provide a delivery service to the space station “was one of the major shifting factors,” said Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “That played a huge role.”
NASA does lend its expertise and oversight, but at the same time, the companies are teaching the agency a thing or two about how to apply business practices to open the frontiers of space. None more so than Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which from the beginning of its partnership with NASA ran into resistance, a clash of Silicon Valley-style ethos with government bureaucracy, youthful impatience with aged bureaucracy.
Now President Trump and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine have gone out of their way to praise the efforts of private space companies and make it clear that the agency intends to rely on them.
“Rich guys, they love rocket ships,” Trump said at a Cabinet meeting this year. “That’s good. That’s better than us paying for them.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, Bridenstine said that industry has had a transformative effect on the agency: “Our commercial partners are challenging us to be more agile, think differently, buy smarter and develop more efficiently.”
SpaceX isn’t the only company seeing the benefit of NASA’s shift. The agency is being far more welcoming to private-sector input in the first component of its proposed lunar gateway program, a space station to float in the vicinity of the moon.
Instead of dictating the requirements and design of the part of the gateway that would provide power and propulsion, NASA reached out to industry for suggestions, said Mike Gold, vice president of regulatory at Maxar Technologies, one of the companies to study the power and propulsion module.
“Load and go is just another example of an evolution that is occurring across the agency where we are seeing NASA embrace commercial practices and commercial experience in a wide variety of programs,” he said.
For years, the thinking was that you fuel the rocket, make sure it’s stable and then allow the astronauts on board. That would limit their exposure to a disaster. That’s how the space shuttle program did it. And that’s how Boeing, which also has the contract to fly astronauts for NASA, plans to fuel its rocket.
But SpaceX likes to do things differently.
To get more power out of its Falcon 9 rockets, it chills its propellants, liquid oxygen and refined kerosene, to extremely low temperatures. As a result, they become denser, allowing SpaceX to pack more fuel into its rockets, giving them more performance. But because the fuel is so cold, it can warm up quickly, which is why it needs to be loaded at the last minute.
The company, which has never flown humans to space before, says that safety is its top priority and notes that the Falcon 9 also comes with an escape system that would allow the Dragon spacecraft to quickly fly away from the rocket booster in the event of an emergency on the pad or during flight.
“We would never have proposed it had we thought that it was a less safe way to go,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, told reporters this month. “The vehicle has more margin when we load the fuel quite close to liftoff.”
She added that the astronauts are “protected by the launch escape system. They’re protected by the heat shield between Dragon and the rocket.”
Since its rocket exploded while being fueled in 2016, the company has notched 33 successful launches in a row using this fueling technique and has completed dozens more engine test fires.
In a statement, Kathy Lueders, the manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said the agency decided to go along with SpaceX’s plan after conducting “an extensive review of the SpaceX ground operations, launch vehicle design, escape systems and operational history. Safety for our personnel was the driver for this analysis, and the team’s assessment was that this plan presents the least risk.”
Still, before signing off on the procedure, she said, SpaceX would have to demonstrate it five times, and then “NASA will assess any remaining risk before determining that the system is certified to fly with crew.”
If all goes to plan, the astronauts would board the SpaceX craft about two hours before liftoff. Then the ground crews would leave the launch site, the escape system would be activated, and fueling would begin about 38 minutes before launch.
“NASA has learned a number of things from SpaceX,” said George Nield, a member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. “There’s not just one way to do these things. And with new technology and thinking out of the box, there are other ways that can be beneficial to not just the companies but to the government itself. . . . And load and go is an example that NASA has slowly warmed up to.”
Speaking to reporters last spring, Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, said that the rocket was designed to be the most robust in the world and dismissed concerns over the fueling.
“I really do not think this presents a safety issue for astronauts,” he said, calling it an “overblown issue.”
Still, he said that launching rockets is a dangerous business that always carries some level of risk.
“There could be a thousand things that could go right with this rocket and one that goes wrong,” he said. “The reason it is so hard to make an orbital rocket is that your passing grade is 100 percent.”