Deton-8. Blastobox-3. Demo-1... One of these is the name of a SpaceX crew capsule test now due to launch in March

As experts worry about the potential for rapid unscheduled in-flight rocket disassembly

SpaceX Crew Dragon access arm
Not long to go now ... A Dragon capsule sits atop a SpaceX rocket (pic: SpaceX)

NASA this week set a date for the launch of the much-delayed Demo-1 – the first test flight of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule that will, fingers crossed, eventually ferry humans to the International Space Station.

This comes as fears grow over the preparedness of the agency’s commercial partners for getting astronauts to the ISS.

In a briefing on Wednesday, SpaceX and NASA said they are aiming for a 0248 EST (0748 UTC) lift off on March 2 for the delayed mission. The non-crewed spacecraft will reach its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes after blast-off, and rendezvous with the International Space Station the following day, at 0555am EST (1055 UTC) after about 27 hours flight.

The capsule will then return to Earth on March 8, splashing down safely into the Atlantic ocean. Simple, right?

Not quite, according to reports. NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel published findings [PDF] last month that would have made for difficult reading for bigwigs at SpaceX and Boeing – the latter is also preparing a crew capsule for the ISS.

The safety panel – which includes former astronauts – had a few concerns, including worries over the Composite Overwrap Pressure Vessel (COPV), which was redesigned after things went bang on a SpaceX resupply mission to the ISS back in 2015. In 2018, NASA pointed the finger at a duff design, and the panel worries that the agency and SpaceX do not have a complete understanding of the hazards and margins involved in flying with new version.

Elon Musk's SpaceX could, of course, point out that the updated design has flown a good few times since, and, er, NASA seems happy to stick 'nauts back on Russian Soyuz rockets after the hardware blew up.

On the other hand, SpaceX's 2015 launch failure resulted in a cargo-only capsule crashing into the sea after the rocket beneath it exploded, while the Russian Soyuz MS-10, in 2018, suffered a stage-separation fault, causing the crew capsule to return to Earth in one piece with no deaths.

SpaceX's "load and go" procedure is also singled out by the panel, with more evaluation needed of the performance-boosting procedure. It is, of course, contrary to how the agency has always done things. In the past the crew boarded once the spacecraft was fueled. SpaceX wants to do it the other way around.

Things change

Former Apollo astronaut Lt. Gen. Thomas Stafford memorably weighed in on the argument (PDF) in his role of Chairman of the ISS Advisory Committee, describing SpaceX’s process as "contrary to booster safety criteria that has been in place for over 50 years, both in this country and internationally." But then SpaceX does like to shake things up a little.

Landing the first stage, fiery end first, on a platform bobbing about in the ocean is also contrary to much of the last 50 years of rocketry. But SpaceX makes it work, most of the time.

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The panel also highlighted parachute problems for both SpaceX and Boeing, giving the latter some stick over failures with pyrotechnic separation bolt initiators and a lack of hot fire testing of the abort engine. The panel went on to worry that there remained quite a bit of verification and validation ahead for the companies.

It is also believed that, as of early February, there remained 30 to 35 concerns that needed to be resolved, most of which must be addresses before any crew can ride in Boeing and SpaceX’s capsules.

And NASA hopes to get SpaceX’s Demo-1 off the ground on March 2. The name curiously doesn't quite inspire confidence, but hey, what do we know? Presumably it's not short for demolition, which may be on some of the safety experts' minds.

NASA's advisory panel states the obvious: "Schedule pressures and the desire to launch pose a potential for the uncrewed test flights to occur without all the critical content to fulfill the role of risk reduction for crewed flight." We'd put it more succinctly: "Test like you fly."

With NASA already preparing to sign-off on yet more seats aboard Russian spacecraft to protect against more slips from it commercial partners, the pressure to get that first demonstration flight off the ground is overwhelming. ®

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