SpaceX Replacing 2 Rocket Engines for NASA Crew-1 Astronaut Launch

SpaceX is replacing two Merlin engines for the NASA Crew-1 Falcon 9 launch, after hitting a snag.
Brad Bergan
SpaceX's Crew-1 astronauts pose in front of their Crew Dragon spacecraft Resilience.SpaceX / NASA

SpaceX is replacing two rocket engines on the Falcon 9 rocket slated to launch the company's upcoming crewed mission — scheduled for liftoff on Nov. 14, according to a news conference held on Wednesday.


SpaceX replacing 2 rocket engines for next crewed flight

This latest measure comes on the heels of an investigation into the strange behavior on Oct. 2, when SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket was slated to launch a GPS satellite for the U.S. Space Force.

The liftoff was automatically aborted just two seconds before liftoff when sensors detected abnormal readings.

The next astronaut launch — which will fly SpaceX's Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station for NASA — is also using a Falcon 9 rocket. This is why SpaceX and NASA pushed the Crew-1's target liftoff date back — initially scheduled for Oct. 31 — to make time to ensure the same problem won't come up when people are sitting on top of the rocket.

SpaceX vendor left residue, blocked Falcon 9 vent holes

Since then, the investigation has discovered the issue: two of the nine Merlin engines installed in the first stage of the Falcon 9's first stage have retained a residue of a "masking lacquer" used to protect sensitive parts during anti-corrosion anodizing treatment, said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of build and flight reliability, during a Wednesday news conference.

SpaceX's vendor who performed the above treatment hadn't removed all of the lacquer after application — leaving some of it in a position to block the 0.06-inch-(1.6-millimeter)-wide vent holes for the valves in two of the Merlins expected to power the two-stage Falcon 9's launch on Oct. 2, added Koenigsmann, reports

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SpaceX investigation carried out with NASA and Space Force

After reviewing much of the Merlin data, SpaceX found traces of a similar issue with two of the engines in the first stage of the Crew-1 Falcon 9 — in addition to one Merlin in the first stage of the booster slated to carry the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich Earth-observing satellite for NASA and several of its partners on Nov. 10, reports The Verge.

As of writing, SpaceX is swapping the affected Merlins out for ones without the masking-lacquer residue, explained Koenigsmann.

SpaceX carried out the investigation and troubleshooting process with NASA and the Space Force, which "led to a really good review and a really good anomaly resolution that, in my opinion, makes a better vehicle and a better engine going forward," added Koenigsmann.

SpaceX, NASA's Crew-1 Falcon 9 mission possibly saved

The safety systems aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 worked perfectly on Oct. 2, detecting the anomaly and aborting the launch in time, said Koenigsmann. But a liftoff may have gone just fine, he added, saying: the Falcon 9 could have undergone a "hard start" created when various fluids — like liquid oxygen, kerosene, and igniter fluids — are introduced in the wrong order in the engines.

"It's not necessarily bad," said Koenigsmann about the possibility of a hard start. "In most cases, it rattles the engine, and it may cause a bit of damage to the engine. In extreme cases, it may cause more damage to the engine."

Whether SpaceX and NASA narrowly avoided a minor disaster on Oct. 2, we'll never know. But one thing's for certain: the upcoming Crew-1 Falcon 9 mission is more secure thanks to the safety systems aborting the Oct. 2 mission, two short seconds before liftoff.

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