SpaceX is no stranger to delays. The private space firm headed by Elon Musk has pushed back is launch schedule several times in the last few years after rockets have been lost. Now, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says there may be an issue with the Falcon 9 rocket that delays the expected launch of the first manned mission in 2018.
The report from the GAO (just a preliminary release for now) cites issues with the turboblades used in Falcon 9 rockets. These are the components that move fuel from the tanks to engines. The blades apparently have a tendency to develop cracks, which could cause catastrophic failure if they develop or worsen during a launch.
According to NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot (who also has an amazing name) says the agency and SpaceX have been aware of the issue for months (or possibly years). NASA expressed concern to SpaceX that the turboblade cracks presented too great a risk to launch manned missions. Cracks have been found in the turboblades as recently as September 2016.
SpaceX says it has been conducting extensive testing on the Falcon 9 rocket and believes it to be safe. It has made changes to the design of the turboblades in an effort to mitigate the cracking issues. Although, the company may still undertake a full redesign of the blades depending on the upcoming GAO report. If that happens, the manned launch will almost certainly be delayed.
SpaceX Falcon 9 Reusable, hovering in test flight at 1000m
SpaceX Falcon 9 Reusable, hovering in test flight at 1000m
Despite a few failures of Falcon 9 rockets in the last few years, no issues appear to be related to the turboblade flaws. The failure last fall was due to a helium loading issue and the previous year’s in-flight breakup was caused by a strut failure. Both those issues have been fixed in the updated version of the Falcon 9.
The GAO report will include more detail of the turboblades, but it also calls out SpaceX’s tendency to make frequent modifications to the Falcon 9 as a cause of the delay. It operates more like a technology company updating software than a traditional space launch firm. All the changes require more testing and certification. Of course, that’s also why it’s been able to develop powered landing technology so fast.
Boeing, the other company planning manned ISS missions, didn’t get away clean in the report. The GAO says Boeing has not done enough testing on its parachute system for the CST-100 capsule. The government currently expects both companies to miss the 2018 launch window.