Sunday, March 29, 2020

First Manned Spaceflight From US Since 2011 Likely to be Delayed

I reported here almost as an addendum to another post that during the March 18th SpaceX launch of 60 Starlink satellites there was a booster anomaly in the Falcon 9 first stage.  About 10 seconds before Main Engine Cutoff (MECO), one of the Falcon 9 booster's nine engines shut down early.  The booster's computer control extended the burn time of the other eight engines for a few seconds to make up for the speed loss.  The mission was a success, but the booster was lost and not recovered (never considered a mission objective).

NASA has decided to postpone the first manned mission aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule until the investigation into what happened to the booster is completed, in an abundance of caution to ensure nothing about that failure is relevant to the mission.
“According to the CCtCap contracts, SpaceX is required to make available to NASA all data and resulting reports. SpaceX, with NASA’s concurrence, would need to implement any corrective actions found during the investigation related to its commercial crew work prior to its flight test with astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA and SpaceX are holding the current mid-to-late May launch timeframe, and would adjust the date based on review of the data, if appropriate.”
The launch had been previously slated for No Earlier Than (NET) the first week of May.  My take on that is you can push that date out for a month and possibly more.

Scene from the launch video stream immediately before and then at the moment of the engine failure. The yellowish-white plume to the exhaust is unusual. 
On March 18th, less than three minutes after liftoff and shortly before stage separation was scheduled, Falcon 9 booster B1048 – on its historic fifth launch attempt – suffered an engine failure visible on SpaceX’s official webcast. By all appearances, Falcon 9’s autonomous flight computer accounted for the engine’s failure, shutdown, and the resultant loss of thrust by burning B1048’s eight remaining engines for several seconds longer than planned. 
The anomaly was Merlin 1D engine’s first in-flight failure ever. The 2012 failure of one of an original Falcon 9 V1.0’s rocket’s nine Merlin 1C engines is SpaceX’s only other in-flight failure.
With nine engines in the booster and the sheer number of flights SpaceX has conducted, that must put this in the parts per million defective range (I don't have enough data to fill in numbers).  The reflexive reaction among readers on Teslarati news was that it must be from being an engine in its fifth flight, and that may be true but I don't think that they know that to any certainty.  The practical problem is that if telemetry doesn't tell them what they need to know to be sure, SpaceX engineering may need to find and recover the booster from the bottom of the Atlantic offshore North Carolina to do failure analysis on the engine.  That sounds like it could be extremely time consuming.

NASA requires all manned launches to be on new boosters, so if the anomaly really was caused by the age of the engine, it's irrelevant to the manned launch.  If it was my ride, I'd want to be sure that the booster was as safe as reasonably can be made.  NASA says that SpaceX will now have to complete its internal failure review and implement necessary hardware, software, or rule changes before it’s allowed to launch NASA astronauts.


  1. I might want to ride a booster that's proven itself at least once.

    1. I've started thinking this way. When NASA put its procedures into place, there was no such thing as a routine rocket launch. I'm not saying it's easy or trivial - the Chinese with their infinite checkbook lost a Long March 2 (or some number) last week - but rocket launches aren't as exotic as they were 50 years ago.

      It sounds to me like NASA is holding up things over a parts per million defect rate. I think a once-flown booster is as close to 100% guaranteed to be safe as anything gets.

  2. I suspected it would be delayed due to the virus scare. And that somehow NASA would somehow find a reason to push it back to protect their buddy Boeing.

    But this? Hmmm. I would not put it past SpaceX coming back with the answer by the end of April.

    I hope.

    Wonder what the next reason NASA will find to delay?

    1. Easy. The paint on the first stage will contain some chemical deemed toxic when it is burned, so they have to remove and replace the white paint job so it doesn't contaminate the atmosphere, thin down penquin egg shells, and cause global climate change when it comes back down.

  3. NASA has been stalling and delaying SpaceX since its first successful flight of the Dragon manned capsule. While some of the concerns are legitimate such as regarding the escape system, this issue with a 4 time recycled booster seems to be a contrivance more than anything. I would also point out that you hear nothing from the Astronauts that are scheduled to fly in the capsule. My guess is that these individuals have a better grip on the safety culture of SpaceX than the brass at NASA do and I would be very interested in a candid statement from them.

    Boeing has been interwoven with NASA's administration for a long time and it is a dependent relationship as Boeing is in serious trouble and if they lost their lucrative defense contracts I am quite sure the company would fold. As such, this Atlas 5 project is being coddled while SpaceX has to do marathons of research and re-verification of test results and analysis all to make this manned return to space via a US made rocket system be Boeing's triumph if any way possible.

    We sent men and women into space for 40 years essentially in prototype space technology that proved to be deadly due to NASA's go fever culture and now we see drag your feet as being the motto for our domestic space program. You would almost think that they prefer to fly Soyuz.....

    1. Good point.
      I read once that we are locked into flying with boosters because we refuse to invest in superior variable nozzle rockets.