NASA and SpaceX confirmed on Wednesday that they are targeting November 14 for the launch of the Crew-1 mission that will take four astronauts to the International Space Station.
Originally to launch on Halloween, NASA delayed the launch after the Falcon 9 rocket launch attempt on October 2 was canceled by T-2 seconds due to an engine issue, carrying a GPS III satellite for the US Air Force.
During a teleconference with reporters on Wednesday, Hans Konigsman of SpaceX explained what happened with the October 2 launch ab launch and what he has done to address the issue going forward.
The rocket’s nine first-stage two engines ignited during early progress in early October, and these engines were shut down automatically. (If the abortion had not started, it is possible that nothing bad would have happened, but Koenigsman said that, in certain extreme circumstances, the eruption from the initial ignition caused significant damage to the Merlin engines).
Copy of issue
SpaceX technicians removed the two engines and sent them from Florida to the company’s test site in McGregor, Texas, where they were able to replicate the problem. They found a relief valve inside the gas generator – a small rocket inside the engine that starts and powers its machinery – filled with masking lacquer to polish nails. They were able to show that removing the lacquer from the vent hole allowed the engines to start normally.
This lacquer is applied during the anodizing process to treat the aluminum components of the gas generator. It is supposed to be removed later, but in the case of these two engines, a small amount of material was trapped inside the bore hole around 2 mm.
“So in that sense it was a really nice invention, and allowed us to fix something that is very subtle but could obviously have a slightly negative effect on engine operation.”
After this, SpaceX inspected the other engines in its fleet (the company only tested the new booster, as the Falcon 9 first phases that have already flown are not subject to this issue). SpaceX discovered that the two engines on the Falcon 9 rocket, which are used for Crew-1 launches, also had this problem. Those two engines are now being replaced for the new Merlin.
If all goes according to plan, SpaceX Crew 1 will first introduce two new Falcon 9 first phases: the GPS III mission on November 4, and the Sentinel-6 mission to NASA on November 10. If the launch goes well, NASA will likely stick to the November 14 date for the Crew-1 mission, which will send Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency mission expert Sochi Noguchi to international space with NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Waker. His crew dragon will render with the space station about 8.5 hours after taking off at 7:49 p.m. EST (November 15, 00:49 UTC).
The issue of this lacquer has come as a surprise as SpaceX has launched literally hundreds of new Merlin 1D rocket engines in the last decade and, yet, has not seen this problem with the masking agent.
“It’s certainly possible that we had his previous cases, and they were so harmless that we completely missed them,” Koenigsman said. It is also possible that the minor procedure was modified so as not to remove all the lacquer, as this specific treatment is performed by an outside vendor. But, he admitted, “it’s hard to explain how this works for so many years and then, all of a sudden, you’ll see this coming into the data.”
Koenigsman feels confident that the issue will not recur. The company’s engineers now understand it, know how to find it, and won’t be surprised again. “Rocketry is tough and needs a lot of attention to detail,” he said. “It’s always a challenge. It’s always difficult. You have to be on your toes to get this right.”