Elon Musk recently rolled out an ambitious plan for how SpaceX will hopefully lead the charge to colonize Mars, and one component of that plan was fueling and refueling ships in space. It cuts down on costs (since the object isn’t as heavy at launch), and could make reusable space tech even easier to use. But NASA has a few concerns with the company’s first step toward that vision.
The U.S. space agency’s Space Station Advisory Committee has chimed in noting refueling is a “hazardous operation” that should definitely not be performed with people nearby, according to the Wall Street Journal. SpaceX had announced plans to start fueling its Falcon 9 rockets with astronauts on board, because the super-cool propellant the company uses means there’s a tight window between fill-up and launch, and loading while fueling speeds up the process.
The typical approach is to fuel the craft, wait a few hours, then board the passengers once fueling is complete — just in case there is an accident or problem during the process. Air Force Lt. General Thomas Stafford, chair of the advisory committee, worries SpaceX’s plan could make the dangerous proposition of space flight even more dangerous. For what it’s worth, SpaceX says it has reviewed all the potential pitfalls, and the company still believes it has "designed a reliable fueling and launch process that minimizes” risk (including an abort system designed to blast the crew capsule away from danger in the event of an explosion).
Looking to the future, SpaceX wants to actually refuel its Mars transport ship while in space, and you’d think NASA might also have some concerns about that down the line, too. Especially if astronauts are literally trapped on said craft with no obvious means of escape in case of a problem. So yeah, there’s still a lot of stuff to figure out. Space is hard, y’all.