When Elon Musk and his team at SpaceX were looking to make their Falcon 9 rocket even more powerful, they came up with a creative idea: to keep the propeller at extremely cold temperatures to reduce its size, allowing them to pack more into the tanks.
But the approach carries a significant risk, according to some security experts. At those extreme temperatures, the propeller would have to be loaded just before takeoff, while the astronauts are on board. An accident or a spark during this maneuver, known as “loading and tearing”, could trigger an explosion.
The proposal has aroused alarms for members of Congress and NASA’s security advisers, as the agency and SpaceX are preparing to put humans into orbit earlier this year. A vigilance group labeled load-and-pass “a potential security risk.” A NASA advisory group warned in a letter that the method was “contrary to the reinforcement safety criteria that have been in place for more than 50 years.”
NASA’s concerns about the safety of astronauts reached their peak when, in September 2016, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded while feeding before an engine test. No one was hurt, but the payload, a multi-million dollar satellite, was lost. The question in the minds of many people at NASA instantly became: What would happen if the astronauts were on board?
The issue of fuel supply is emerging as a point of tension between the space agency obsessed with security and the nonconformist company led by Musk, a technological entrepreneur who is well known for his talent for the dramatic and for overcoming the limits of science space.
In this cultural clash, SpaceX is the daring Silicon Valley-style team led by a man who literally sells flamethrowers on the Internet and wholeheartedly accepts the risk. Musk is reviving interest in space with acrobatic landings with booster rockets and mind-blowing acrobatics, such as the launch of a Tesla convertible to Mars.
Their sensibilities have clashed with a bureaucratic system at NASA that has been accused of being too conservative in the wake of two shuttle disasters that killed 14 astronauts.
The concerns of some at NASA are shared by others. John Mulholland, who oversees Boeing’s contract to fly astronauts to the International Space Station and worked on the space shuttle, said the fuel charge was rejected by NASA in the past because “we could never feel comfortable with the safety risks that It would take that approach, when densified propellant charges, it’s not an inherently stable situation. “