SpaceX Launching NASA Astronauts to Space This Year Amidst Safety Concerns

Updated I In the nearly six years since SpaceX was awarded $440 million to develop a means to transport humans to space for NASA, the company has only sent cargo. The company was awarded another $2.6 billion in 2014 to send NASA's astronauts to space, according to NASA. The company is on track to send its first astronauts to the International Space Station later this year.

The past four years have raised some concerns about the safety of those astronauts though, according to The Washington Post. The company had one of its Falcon 9 rockets bound for the ISS explode just 139 seconds into the mission in 2015, an explosion NASA called an "anomalous event" in a report this year.

The following year, on September 1, another SpaceX rocket, along with the satellite it was meant to deliver to space, exploded at Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 40 during a static-fire test for the launch.

The explosions caused concern for those at NASA who worried that if the rocket could blow up with cargo on board, it could also explode once it had people on board as well, The Post reported.

Some of the concerns from those at NASA have to do with SpaceX's fueling method, called "load-and-go." It involves keeping the fuel extremely cold, so it takes up less space and then loading it right before the launch while the astronauts or cargo are on board, according to The Post.

Despite these concerns, NASA and SpaceX plan to launch the first manned mission in a Dragon craft aboard one of its Falcon 9 rockets later this year.

The second quarterly meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, scheduled for May 17, will offer more up-to-date information about how substantial concerns are about the upcoming launches. The meeting gives priority "to those programs that involve the safety of human flight," and will offer updates on the Commercial Crew Program, according to a notice from NASA.

During a Congressional hearing in January, Dr. Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, spoke on the fueling processes of the company and said that SpaceX actually believes that the "load-and-go" fueling process is a safer way to fuel.

"What we tried to do here is we tried to minimize the time we expose personnel, not just astronauts, but also crew, to the hazard of fueling," Koenigsmann said during the panel.

"In this particular case, our procedure is actually that we put the astronauts, we strap them in, we make sure they're comfortable, and then the ground crew retreats and we arm the pad abort system that we've already tested. Then we start fueling the main propellants basically within what amounts to half an hour or something like that. So it's a relatively quick procedure and we believe that this exposure time is the shortest possible and therefore the safest approach," he told the panel.

Last summer, Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and CEO, tweeted that his company was "Looking forward to launching @NASA astronauts to the International Space Station next year!"

NASA's launch schedule for the year shows that SpaceX is set to launch its first Dragon capsule designed for humans without a crew in August as a test, as is competitor Boeing. Boeing is set to launch the first crewed mission in November, according to the schedule. SpaceX is scheduled to launch its crewed mission the following month.

This story was updated to include further information about SpaceX's fuel loading process and the Commercial Crew Program.

spacex dragon capsule
Astronaut Bob Behnken emerges from the top hatch of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft in manufacturing at SpaceX's headquarters and factory in Hawthorne, California, as astronaut Eri Boe looks on. The company is aiming to send people to space in the Dragon capsule later this year. NASA/SpaceX