SpaceX & the Ghosts of Space Travel’s Past

Image of the SpaceX white space craft docking with the ISS. The nose cone has opened to reveal docking port.
The unmanned SpaceX “Crew Dragon” craft docking with the ISS in 2019. (NASA image)

This week, SpaceX will make history as its first manned flight will launch from Cape Canaveral on Thursday with the intent of delivering 2 astronauts – Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken – to the International Space Station (ISS). The crew capsule will remain docked to the ISS for an as yet undetermined amount of time, then ferry the astronauts back to earth, splashdown style. NASA is partnering with SpaceX to see this mission to success, but it will be the first private company launch into orbit, as well as the first (non-tourist) manned launch from the US since 2011. This is certainly exciting news, and will no doubt attract a lot of media attention, due to the novelty of the event and due to the truly weird, truly controversial SpaceX founder, Elon Musk.

What draws my attention to this, though, is the worrisome framing of this mission I have seen in a few high profile articles about the launch. Readers may remember that I am very interested in organizational culture, especially at NASA (read here and here), and in particular, the way their organizational culture lead to mistakes and tragedy like the Challenger accident. I am far less familiar with the organizational culture at SpaceX/Tesla/Musk’s Life, but given the behavior of Musk himself, I would not be surprised to learn it was Not Good. I just don’t have any research to go on either way.

What I do have are some articles discussing this launch that spend an inordinate amount of time on aesthetics and almost-complete testing on key components of the flight matériel. This all seems foreboding to me, so I’d like to break down the concerns I have about the way this mission is being framed in some media.

First of all, you can easily look up any contemporary stories about the SpaceX mission by just typing “SpaceX” into your browser/search engine. That will give you an array of articles and videos, many of them telling the basic facts about the mission that I wrote above. But some of these pieces, while meaning to delve into the novelty and coolness of a private company space launch to the ISS here on soil, end up revealing far more about the hazards of such an attempt.

In the article, “NASA clears SpaceX crew capsule for first astronaut mission” on Spaceflight Now, writer Stephen Clark runs down the recent Flight Readiness Review, which is a standard NASA process that brings the various teams working on a space flight together to discuss all of the components and their readiness for the mission. This and the Launch Readiness Review, which in this case is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, May 26, are the last opportunities to notice problems, issues, or oversights and correct them, if possible. The Launch Readiness Review was the flashpoint for postmortem analyses of the Challenger accident, as no one spoke up forcefully enough to stop the launch, despite worrying problems that had already been observed. According to Clark’s reporting, NASA greenlit the mission after the Review went overtime, which was expected by the entire team.

During the Flight Readiness Review, the NASA administrators heard presentations from those at NASA working with SpaceX, and from SpaceX itself. One particular issue has been the parachute design for the capsule, known as the Crew Dragon. The previous design did not work, so SpaceX engineers developed a new design that had to be tested and approved, according to Steve Jurczyk, the NASA administrator who also chaired the Flight Readiness Review. Jurczyk went on to say that “it’s fewer tests than we normally would see on a parachute qualification program. So we took a long time in a couple of presentations during the review to have the team walk us through the design, the changes, the qualification testing, and the margins on the chute to make sure that everybody was good with how those chutes were qualified.” NASA was satisfied, apparently, and approved the new parachutes. This is one instance that seems like a potential red flag – less testing is never a good thing. Rather than having enough testing to meet the standards of safety and design, NASA is relying on the reports from the parachute designers/engineers themselves. This puts a lot of faith in their presentation of their own work, rather than in the relatively objective results of testing.

Another serious issue covered in the Review was “a recent ‘performance shortfall’ during a test of the Crew Dragon’s internal fire suppression system.” This system is supposed to suppress any fire which develops underneath the capsule floor, which seems pretty crucial. But the way Jurczyk describes the review process suggests the “shortfall” has not been fixed: “The team … analyzed both the hazards there, as well as the ability to suppress a fire, and we’ve deemed the risk to be very low there.” The risk may be low, but the harm of such a fire breaking out is extremely high. This sounds way too much like the old NASA thinking that simply because something happens within their observed margins, then it’s probably fine. NASA employed this mindset over and over again, without ever considering that their work was extraordinary and not done very frequently, and thus observed margins are not the most helpful metric by which to determine risk. In this case, the Crew Dragon craft, and SpaceX itself, have NEVER sent a manned mission into orbit. There has been quite a bit of testing of the various rockets, fuel designs, propulsion mechanisms, etc, but this is itself a unique event. Thus, previously observed phenomena cannot, and should not, be the barometer for risk.

Fortunately, Clark does mention the human danger involved in this mission. While noting that NASA has “set the program’s safety threshold at 1-in-270 odds of an accident during a 210-day mission that would kill the astronauts on-board,” Clark adds that it is much harder to determine Loss of Crew (LOC) odds, because of the reliance on assumptions in the assessment. Over NASA’s shuttle history, the LOC odds vacillated from 1-in-500, down to 1-in-12, and then back to 1-in-90. These shifts in the odds were motivated by the data gleaned from every shuttle flight, but never stayed stable or accounted for unusual accidents like the foam breaking off the Columbia and destroying several solar panels on the hull. Thus, the LOC odds are not entirely reliable or useful in deciding the relative safety of such a mission.

While this is unsettling enough, another article take an even worse approach to this launch is this one from the AP: “SpaceX’s 1st astronaut launch breaking new ground for style,” which I found on The focus here is on the exciting aesthetic design behind all of SpaceX’s features and equipment, and the fact that the astronauts will ride in a special Tesla to the launchpad. I don’t mind discussions of fashion or design at all; they are important and have a special place in talking about how we all look, feel, and live. But this particular article has so many cringeworthy moments, which I’ll just bullet point below:

  • “It is really neat, and I think the biggest testament to that is my 10-year-old son telling me how cool I am now,” [Doug] Hurley told The Associated Press. (Mind you, he is an astronaut who has flown into space before!)
  • Hurley also said “SpaceX has gone all out” on the designs, “And they’ve worked equally as hard to make the innards and the displays and everything else in the vehicle work to perfection.”
  • “SpaceX designed and built its own suits, which are custom-fit. Safety came first. The cool — or wow — factor was a close second.” (A.Close.Second!)
  • “The white-suited Hurley and Behnken will transfer from the white Tesla to the white Dragon atop the equally white Falcon 9. ‘It’s going to be quite a show,’ [Benji]Reed [of SpaceX] promised.”

Hey, fancy white suits are indeed cool, but the article goes on to say that the old NASA orange jumpsuits are too old-fashioned and had become a kind of shorthand in movies, which “stole the orange look whenever actors were ‘trying to pretend to be astronauts’.” (That is, in fact, literally what actors do.)

So, there is a clear focus on a new, “inspiring” aesthetic here that creates a visual separation from NASA in favor of the exciting new SpaceX design. Never mind that SpaceX literally could not be doing this without NASA, they will at least look independent and new. But far more worrying is the emphasis that style is so important to SpaceX that it is a “close” second to safety in terms of everything created and engineered for this mission.

Because Musk himself is often focused on design to a fault, and typically will brook no critique of his companies’ design choices, it should probably be concerning that aesthetics is so forward in this project at the same time that new parachute designs are being approved without the requisite number of tests. Remember the Tesla Cybertruck? The rather unattractive vehicle that also failed its window glass shatter test in front of a lot of people? Let’s just hope SpaceX has better luck – Godspeed to both Hurley and Behnken. I pray for their safe return.

UPDATE: After scrubbing the first attempt due to terrible weather, SpaceX and NASA tried again, on Saturday, May 30, and the launch was a complete success. The astronauts have docked with ISS by now, and will now wait to see when their return date is. Hopefully the return will be as successful as the launch was.

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