Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX rocket engine explodes on test stand in McGregor

A Block 5 Merlin engine encountered an "engine out" anomaly at a test stand in McGregor, Texas, on Sunday, November 5, 2017.

A Block 5 Merlin engine encountered an “engine out” anomaly at a test stand in McGregor, Texas, on Sunday, November 5, 2017. Photo Credit: SpaceX

A SpaceX Block 5 rocket engine encountered an anomaly on the test stand during a qualification test held on Sunday, November 5, 2017, at the NewSpace firm’s site located in McGregor, Texas. The accident was made public three days later on Wednesday and comes at a time when the company is experiencing an unprecedented rate of launch.

The Washington Post noted that no one was injured during the test and the Hawthorne, California-based company’s 2017 launch manifest has at least three more flights slated to take place from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 and Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A.

The engine anomaly should not impact the three official launches remaining on SpaceX's 2017 manifest.

The engine anomaly should not impact the three official launches remaining on SpaceX’s 2017 manifest. Photo Credit: Michael Seeley / We Report Space

At present, the secretive mission, dubbed “Zuma”, is slated to launch on Nov. 16, with a cargo resupply run to the International Space Station, CRS-13, currently poised to fly from SLC-40 (returning launch operations to the launch site after more than a year) about three weeks later, on Dec. 4. On Dec. 22, SpaceX has another Iridium flight, number 4, scheduled to take place.

Shortly after SpaceFlight Insider had reached out to SpaceX for clarification on several points regarding the incident, the company responded and spoke with us at length about the engine out anomaly, during which a SpaceX spokesman stated:

On Saturday, November 4, SpaceX experienced an anomaly during a qualification test set up of a Merlin engine at our rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. No one was injured and all safety protocols were followed during the time of this incident. We are now conducting a thorough and fully transparent investigation of the root cause. SpaceX is committed to our current manifest and we do not expect this to have any impact on our launch cadence.

SpaceX told SpaceFlight Insider that SpaceX would only suspend further qualification testing on the Block 5 Merlin engines until the investigation is complete and that the company was not suspending testing on the Block 4 engines or on other tests in Texas.

The 1st stage Merlin test stand at McGregor is composed of two test cells. One of the two cells was damaged during the anomaly and will need about two to four weeks of repair, as SpaceX noted. Block 4 Merlin engine testing should resume within the coming days.

2017 has been a banner year for SpaceX with 16 missions having been sent aloft, so far, from either KSC’s LC-39A or SpaceX’s launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – Space Launch Complex 4E (East). According to the company, that number could reach as high as 19. Unofficially, there could be as many as 20 launches carried out by SpaceX in 2017.

The uncertainty comes from whether SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy will fly this year, the complexity of the launch vehicle, and the fact that it has 27 engines in its first stage alone has made its official launch date difficult to pin down.

In terms of Sunday’s accident, SpaceX has encountered anomalies before. Here are some of the more public accidents that the company has experienced:

  • Aug. 22, 2014 – A reusable rocket prototype self-destructed in the skies above McGregor during a test flight.
  • June 28, 2015 – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded some two-and-a-half minutes into the flight. The rocket’s payload, the CRS-7 Dragon spacecraft – stocked with supplies, hardware, and experiments bound for the International Space Station – was lost.
  • Sept. 1, 2016 – Another Falcon 9, this one sitting on the launch pad at SLC-40 exploded, resulting in the complete loss of the roughly $185 million Amos-6 satellite, the Falcon 9 rocket, and a portion of the launch site. As noted, SpaceX is hoping to resume operations at the site in less than a month.

Most launch vehicles encounter an anomaly within their first few flights – something the Falcon 9 avoided for its first five years and 18 missions.



Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Definitely will impact any NASA/USAF missions.

Mess with a bull get the horn
Mess with bees you will be Stung
Mess with fire you will get burned.
Mess with rockets all of the above and more will happen. But look at what is gained.

As the Block 5 engines will power Crew Dragon will NASA start putting in orders for more Soyuz seats? Boeing Starliner won’t be flying until 2019 so America’s HSF gap years extend yet further.

Testing has to push the limits, to find out what you can do. Sometimes you go to the breaking point to find out where it is. I’m sure SpaceX gleaned a lot of info from this test.

Well, I guess this is whole point of testing. You’d rather a test failure occur than it passing qualification with an uncaught ticking time bomb of a flaw that may or may not manifest at a later date during a launch.

Just to be clear this was not an engine failure but a gse failure. The engine on the stand hadn’t actually started. SpaceX and NASA have both indicated that this incident will have no schedule impact. Minor damage was done to a second test stand repairable in a couple of days and this will enable continued engine testing. Source: NSF and NASA.

what is a gse failure

enter the apologists who, typically, wait several days to post a comment in the hopes they’ll get the last word in. I wonder if these same individuals will be so “brave” when a crewed Dragon spacecraft is lost – I doubt they will.

I don’t see an “apologist” so much as someone who updated the thread with the most recent information. Today’s article on NSF says this was a failure of the test stand, not the engine. So, it really shouldn’t impact schedules, given that the other Merlin test stand should be up and running in a few days.

If this were any other company the fanboys yaps would be shut but as its SpaceX the excuses have to be issued – don’t they? The double standard is predictable and anyone who has read the Aussie apologist’s posts aren’t surprised by this. Nor do we pretend it’s anything other than his usual shenanigans. SpaceX has rewritten the book on space flight, but when you let an organization have a free pass? Bad things can and will happen. As to what you see: It’s limited because you’re only looking through the blinders of adoration. People are allegedly going to ride on these things and the fanboys are more than happy to excuse any and every anomaly they encounter. Again, I wonder how vocal you’ll be when there’s a crewed CRS-7, Amos-6, Block 5 moment. My guess is you, Shipley and your lot won’t be working overtime to “correct” any and everyone critical of the object of your devotion. You should allow people to be concerned about the safety of the crews who’ll fly on SpaceX’s products, instead of trying to silence them: shame on you.

Anderson Andrews

I agree with Al. Whenever SpaceX’s stuff blows up there’s a small group of SpaceX fans who visit all the space news sites and try to “clarify” things. Here’s a wacky idea – spend less time trying to tell others what to think – and more time fixing whatever it was that blew up.

I really don’t understand what your gripe is Al. I simply posted facts which are not in dispute. You introduced a number of irrelevant items into the discussion, all of which have nothing to do with this article and which I won’t comment on unless raised in another article. When and if that happens I’ll be more than happy to engage in a layman’s discussion but politely and with no recourse to name calling. Have a good day.

On another note. How much of your tax dollars went into producing the Falcon 9/Dragon. Oh, that’s right, none did. So why are you even opening your pie hole on the subject? Until some of your hard earned money is sunk into this thing the only appropriate thing for you to do – is shut up. Stop telling those of us who have helped pay for it what to think.

Thanks for proving my point(s) Whenever SpaceX has an issue Neil has to ride to the rescue to explain, clarify or excuse. I doubt when crew lose their lives on Dragon that the family of said crew will deem it “irrelevant.” Only fanboys such as yourself seem unwilling/unable to comprehend why many of us get concerned when SpaceX encounters an anomaly. I’m with Andy, instead of shooting the messenger why not encourage SpaceX to work the bugs out of their system instead?

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