SpaceX’s Next Astronaut Launch Delayed Due To A Familiar Problem

SpaceX Falcon 9 USSF GPS III satellite

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In a blog post, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) has announced that its upcoming Commercial Crew Program (CCP) launch to the International Space Station (ISS) will be delayed. Agency officials had earlier planned to conduct the launch at the end of this month, through SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule spacecraft.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Now Slated For Launch In First Half Of November

Today's delay marks the second delay for the Crew 1 mission that is set to resume manned flights to the ISS from the U.S. These flights are the first step of NASA and SpaceX's efforts to build a sustainable commercial Low Earth Orbit (LEO) economy.

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During briefings conducted for the launch mission, NASA and SpaceX representatives have expressed their confidence in the Crew Dragon. The capsule is an upgrade of the Cargo Dragon which SpaceX developed for NASA's Commercial Resupply Services Program (CRS). Through the cargo flights to the ISS, SpaceX helped reduce flight costs over international alternatives.

NASA stated today that the delay is attributed to the Falcon 9's propulsion system. The partly-reusable launch vehicle is the backbone of SpaceX's entire launch portfolio,. It reuses its engines like NASA's Space shuttle, and SpaceX also conducts other cargo launches, including the company's satellites for its Starlink internet constellation with the Falcon 9.

The problem surfaced in the gas generators of the launch vehicle's Merlin 1D rocket engines. It did not occur on a NASA mission and SpaceX will use the additional time to test and review the system according to the agency.

Despite still being a startup, SpaceX has set for itself an aggressive schedule of launch cadences as it competes with bigger firms. Its manifest consists of both private and non-private sector launches. Both it and the United Launch Alliance have experienced successive launch delays over the past few weeks.

SpaceX Crew 1 Crew Dragon Capsule NASA
SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft during assembly in the company's facility at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on October 2, 2020. Image: NASA Commercial Crew Program Blog

Delay Attributed To Testing Falcon 9's Engine Component Crucial For Ignition

During its review, SpaceX will study the Falcon 9's gas generator; a crucial part of the Merlin 1D engines. The generator ensures that the engine's combustion chamber receives pressurized fuel from the tanks, and its start marks the first stage of a launch vehicle's ignition. In the slew of launch delays that SpaceX has experienced recently, the company discovered a similar problem with its Falcon 9 carrying the Space Force's fourth GPS-III satellite.

SpaceX had to stand down from the GPS launch on the third of this month due to a pressure rise in the Falcon 9's gas generator as well. This was revealed by Elon Musk on his Twitter page, with the executive also admitting the daunting task which SpaceX faced due to its manifest.

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The new launch target for the Crew-1 mission is "no sooner than early-to-mid November" stated NASA in today's post. SpaceX is using a brand new Falcon 9 booster for the mission, which NASA will also use to fly astronauts on its second CCP mission. This mission will re-use the Dragon capsule which ferried astronauts Behnken and Hurley to the ISS in May this year, resuming manned spaceflight from U.S. soil.

In Crew-1, SpaceX and NASA will send four astronauts to the ISS, doubling the crew size over Benhken and Hurley's Dragon Endeavour. Crew-1's crew will complete a six-month-long science mission on the orbiting space station, and fully test the Dragon capsule's endurance. SpaceX's vehicle is designed to last for 210 days while docked to the ISS, with its solar panels having met NASA expectations during the Demo-2 launch.

This Crew Dragon will also feature upgrades to its heat shield over the one that took off with the two astronauts earlier in 2020. Following the Crew Dragon's post-splashdown evaluation, SpaceX stated that the vehicle had experienced heat shield erosion, and the changes introduced as a result were tested in NASA's Arc Jet.

NASA's Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Kathy Leuders also commented on SpaceX's launch cadence. She remained optimistic and commented that,

“With the high cadence of missions SpaceX performs, it really gives us incredible insight into this commercial system and helps us make informed decisions about the status of our missions. The teams are actively working this finding on the engines, and we should be a lot smarter within the coming week.”

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