The rap on NASA is that it is risk-averse, stuck in the old ways of doing things, hampered by a big 60-year-old bureaucracy that was chastened by two fatal disasters in the space shuttle.
That was the thought that seemed to greet the controversial tank plan from SpaceX. Instead of filling the rocket with propellant for the management of the astronauts, the company proposed to do it afterwards.
Loading a flammable mix of propellants under the most successful NASA alarms in some parts of the office and under security experts, who warned it was against decades of spaceflight. One watchdog group called it a "potential security risk & # 39; – a spark during refueling could cause an explosion, many of NASA feared. That's what happened when a SpaceX rocket blew up when it was refueled in 2016.
But then NASA recently announced that it would allow SpaceX's fuel procedure, known informally as "loading and unloading", provided that the company demonstrates it five times before it receives formal certification. The decision was significant for NASA and indicates a sustained cultural shift, as the agency collaborates with a growing commercial space industry that thrives in pushing boundaries.
NASA & # 39; s evolution has been in the making for years, officials said, because it will be more comfortable to give the industry more autonomy and freedom, which will give much hope to the kind of innovation necessary to make space flight more routine.
Over the years, it has developed deep partnerships with various companies, giving 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 freight and supplies to the International Space Station.
Subsequently, under President Barack Obama, he assigned contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to fly crews, the first flights of which are expected next year. By doing so, the office allowed the companies to build, design and operate their spaceship. And while NASA drew up a list of requirements that the companies had to comply with, this did not dictate how they should comply.
Being able to rely on private companies to deliver a delivery service to the space station was "one of the most important change factors," said Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. "That played a big part."
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NASA provides its expertise and overview, but at the same time, the companies teach the agency a few things about how business practices can be applied to open the boundaries of space. Nothing more than SpaceX from Elon Musk, who opposed NASA from the beginning of his partnership, a clash of the Silicon Valley style ethos with government bureaucracy, youthful impatience with old bureaucracy.
Now, President Donald Trump and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine have done their best to praise the efforts of private space companies and make it clear that the agency intends to rely on it.
"Rich boys, they love rocket ships," Trump said during a cabinet meeting this year. "That's good, that's better than paying for them."
In a statement to The Washington Post, Bridenstine said the industry had a transforming effect on the agency: "Our commercial partners challenge us to be more flexible, think differently, buy smarter and develop more efficiently."
SpaceX is not the only company that sees the benefit of NASA's shift. The agency welcomes much more the input from the private sector in the first part of its proposed moon gateway program, a space station that is floating near the moon.
Instead of dictating the requirements and design of the part of the gateway that would provide power and propulsion, NASA reached the industry for suggestions, said Mike Gold, vice president of regulation at Maxar Technologies, one of the companies to to study the power and drive. module.
"Load and go is simply an example of an evolution occurring throughout the agency, where we see that NASA embraces commercial practices and commercial experience in a wide range of programs," he said.
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For years you thought you would fuel the rocket, make sure it is stable and allow the astronauts on board. That would limit their exposure to a disaster. That is how the space shuttle program did it. And that's how Boeing, who also has the contract to fly astronauts for NASA, plans to fuel his rocket.
But SpaceX likes to do things differently.
To get more power out of its Falcon 9 rockets, it cools its propellants, liquid oxygen and refined kerosene, to extremely low temperatures. As a result, they become denser, allowing SpaceX to put more fuel into its rockets, giving it more performance. But because the fuel is so cold, it can heat up quickly, which is why it has to be loaded at the last minute.
The company, which has never brought people to space, says safety is the top priority and notes that the Falcon 9 also comes with an escape system that allows the Dragon spacecraft to fly away quickly from the rocket booster in the event of a emergency on the path or during the flight.
"We never imagined it if we thought it was a less safe way to go," Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, told reporters this month. "The vehicle has more margin when we load the fuel fairly close to the launch."
She added that the astronauts are "protected by the escape system of the launch." They are protected by the heat shield between Dragon and the rocket. "
Since the rocket exploded while it was being stoked in 2016, the company chewed 33 successful launches in tandem with this fuel technology and has completed dozens of other engine test firings.
In a statement, Kathy Lueders, the manager of NASA's commercial crew program, said the agency decided to join SpaceX's plan after executing "a comprehensive overview of SpaceX's ground activities, launching it vehicle design, flight systems and operational history, personnel were the driving force behind this analysis, and the team's assessment was that this plan had the least risk. "
Even before she signed the procedure, SpaceX said she had to demonstrate it five times, and "NASA will assess the remaining risk before it is certified that the system is certified to fly with the crew."
If everything goes according to plan, the astronauts would board the SpaceX spaceship about two hours before they take off. Then the ground plows would leave the launch site, the escape system would be activated and refueling would start about 38 minutes before the launch.
"NASA has learned a number of things from SpaceX," said George Nield, a member of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. "There is not only one way to do these things, and with new technology and out-of-the-box thinking, there are other ways that not only the companies can benefit, but also the government itself … And load and go is one example that NASA is slowly warming up. "
Last spring, Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, told reporters that the rocket was designed to be the most rugged in the world and dismissed concerns about refueling.
"I really do not think this is a safety problem for astronauts," he said and called it an "exaggerated problem".
Yet he said that rocket launching is a dangerous business that always involves a certain degree of risk.
"There can be a thousand things that can go well with this rocket and one that goes wrong," he said. "The reason that it is so difficult to make an orbital rocket is that your score is 100 percent successful."
(With the exception of the headline, this story is not edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)