SpaceX Fixes Engine, Fire Extinguisher Problems Ahead of NASA Astronaut Launch

Ramish Zafar
SPACEX-FALCON-9-CREW-5-KENNEDY
The Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon are pictured at the launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida earlier this month. Image: SpaceX

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Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are ready to launch the fifth operational mission of the latter's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to the International Space Station (ISS) at noon Eastern Time later today. The launch comes after SpaceX fixed minor problems with its rocket and spacecraft, and it will launch a crew of four to the orbiting science laboratory. Officially dubbed Crew-5, the mission marks the first time a female astronaut will command a SpaceX-NASA mission and the first time a Russian cosmonaut flies to the ISS on a private American spacecraft.

NASA, SpaceX Crew-5 Mission To Investigate Developing 3D Heart Tissue Model, Astronaut Mission Endurance

Prior to today's liftoff, NASA officials and SpaceX engineers conducted a launch readiness review of the mission, during which they investigated whether any potential problems could delay today's launch. As part of this review, SpaceX discovered minor problems with both its Falcon 9 rocket and the Crew Dragon spacecraft, which have now been fixed given that the pair continue to stick to their plan of launching later today.

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The problems were revealed by SpaceX's senior director of human spaceflight programs Mr. Benji Reed during a press teleconference on Monday after they finished up the review. During the event, Mr. Reed outlined that as part of the pre-launch checkouts, his company had identified problems with one of the Falcon 9 rocket's engines and the fire extinguisher system on the Dragon spacecraft.

 

3D-HEART-CELLS-TISSUE-ENGINEERING-PRE-FLIGHTPreflight view of 3D heart cells generated by microscale tissue engineering. ISS: Engineering Stem Cell-Derived Cardiac Microtissues with Metabolic Regulators in Space to Promote Cardiomyocyte Maturation (Project EAGLE) grows 3D cultures of heart cells on the International Space Station. What is learned could help scientists establish a functional heart tissue model that mimics heart disease and can be used to test new drugs. Image courtesy of Parvin Forghani, Ph.D., Emory University.

During the conference, the executive stated that:

I don't see any showstoppers here. And I certainly don't see anything that's adding elevated risk to the mission, or that we would accept elevated risk. As mentioned you know we will only fly when we are ready. Part of getting ready will we resolve these. I'll kind of walk through them one by one just to help out. So the first one is our TVC, thrust vector control actuator on Falcon 9 launch vehicle. During static fire, we had noticed there'd been out of family performance on that particular actuator. And it'll be replaced with a new unit. That is, it's not uncommon to sometimes see, you know, out of family behavior on one of those actuators, and we actually have quite a bit of experience of replacing those with a new unit to make sure everything is clean.

And just to help you know with a little bit of color on that. The importance of those actuators is that they're moving the engine, and you're pointing it in the right vector, the right directions so all nine engines work together to get the rocket to the right place. And so obviously we want those to work exactly the way they're supposed to. So when we see anything that looks a little bit off, we want to replace it with the new unit and that's standard process.

. . .Finally, we talked about the fire system, basically the fire suppression system on Dragon. And, again, what happens is that there's a connection, as Steve mentioned, that we detected this leaking and we're basically going to go through a replacement operation. We're replacing a fitting and o-ring, we're gonna refill the bottle, perform a pressure decay test and then get back to our normal configuration. We actually expect to have all that done by tomorrow morning, again well in advance of Crew-5.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in September. Image: SpaceX

Several crucial science experiments will also fly to the ISS with Crew-5, including those that aim at building a 3D model of the human heart tissue for medical research. This tissue is made up of cells called cardiomyocytes, and it is able to mature into 3D models in microgravity which then allows for better disease modeling and drug discovery. Additionally, studies are conducted on cells after they return to Earth, to let researchers determine the effects that spaceflight might have on them.

Another experiment, from the Canadian Space Agency, will monitor astronauts' cardiorespiratory systems and their blood pressure through a shirt that measures their heart and breathing rates before, during and after exercise and then compare these with measurements taken before and after their mission. The research will enable insight into long-duration missions, such as potential trips to Mars.

The SpaceX-NASA Crew-5 will take off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at noon later today and the Crew Dragon spacecraft is expected to dock to the ISS at 4:57 pm ET tomorrow.

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