Spaceflight Insider

Preliminary GAO report calls commercial crew vehicles into question

Commercial Crew Program: SpaceX Crewed Dragon spacecraft in orbit above Earth. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

Commercial Crew Program: CGI rendition of a SpaceX Crewed Dragon spacecraft in orbit above Earth. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

The Wall Street Journal stated in a recent report that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has expressed new concerns about the safety of SpaceXs Falcon 9 launch vehicle in a preliminary report to the U.S. Congress. The early version of the GAO document, which has not yet been posted online, reported cracks in the turbopump blades of the Merlin engine, among other faults.

Cracks in the armor

NASA considers these types of cracks to be major threats to Falcon 9’s safety and that the blades might need to be redesigned before the agency allows astronauts to ride on the rocket. The agency considers the turbopump blades, which direct propellants toward the Merlin combustion chamber, as presenting an unacceptable risk for crewed flights.

The Journal reported a SpaceX spokesman as saying, “We have qualified our engines to be robust” to these types of cracks but are “modifying the design to avoid them altogether.” The pending changes “will be part of the final design” for the Falcon 9. He added that SpaceX is working “in partnership with NASA to qualify engines for manned spaceflight.”

This preliminary report is becoming public two weeks after SpaceX’s launch on January 14, the first successful launch since a Falcon 9 exploded during fueling on September 1, 2016. The next launch, scheduled to be the company’s first from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, has been delayed until mid-February, at the earliest.

The Journal also reports:

Industry officials have known about problems with cracked blades on Falcon 9 versions for many months or even years. But cracks continued to be found during tests as recently as September 2016, Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, confirmed in an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier this week.

Mr. Lightfoot said “we’re talking to [SpaceX] about turbo machinery,” adding that he thinks “we know how to fix them.” In the interview, Mr. Lightfoot said he didn’t know if the solution would require a potentially time-consuming switch to bigger turbopumps.

Boeing also getting attention

GAO likely will report that both companies will shift their first crewed flights under NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability program to 2018.

The GAO is looking into issues with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. For Boeing, officials close to the investigation told the Journal that GAO investigators raised questions about Boeing’s reliability tests of their parachute systems.

In addition to the turbopump blades, the Journal reported that GAO has cited SpaceX’s frequent modifications of Falcon 9 designs as a potential source of delays in obtaining NASA certification for the vehicle.

Spaceflight Insider has reached out to SpaceX but has not received a response yet.

SpaceX’s immediate plans

As Spaceflight Insider reported on Jan. 30, SpaceX has rescheduled their launch of the EchoStar communications satellite to late February, after the next cargo launch to the International Space Station (ISS) in mid-February.

“This schedule change allows time for additional testing of ground systems ahead of the CRS-10 Mission,” SpaceX said in a statement. “The launch vehicles, Dragon, and the EchoStar satellite are all healthy and prepared for launch.”



Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.

Reader Comments

It seems as anyone who goes against the status quo is cutting corners. SpaceX has developed return to launch site capabilities. The big box stores are happy to put their hardware in the ocean and charge the taxpayer. We really need people who are willing to push the envelope to find an economical way to space

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