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Next SpaceX Commercial Resupply Flight Delayed

The next launch of one of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft atop one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets is now slated to occur no earlier than March of next year. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert / Wired4Space

The second commercial flight of Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Dragon cargo vessel to the International Space Station (ISS) has been pushed back from January until no earlier than March 1, 2013. The delay, announced by NASA managers, will allow more time for investigation of the Falcon 9 engine malfunction, which occurred during the launch of the first commercial Dragon mission on Oct. 7.

During the Oct. 7 launch of the Falcon 9 rocket a anomaly in the Falcon 9′s Engine Number One took place a little over a minute into the flight. Photo Credt: Alan Walters / awaltersphoto.com

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX is tasked with supplying Dragon spacecraft and the two-stage Falcon 9 launch vehicles to NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. The speed in which SpaceX has reached this historic milestone has been nothing short of a whirlwind.

Things, however, did not go off without a hitch during SpaceX’s last flight.

About one minute 19 seconds into the CRS-1 flight to the ISS, one of the Falcon’s nine first-stage Merlin engines encountered an anomaly, the exact cause of which has yet to be determined. Observers on the ground at first thought there had been an explosion, as debris was seen falling from the rocket.

However, early analysis by the post-flight investigation board showed that while the fuel dome of Engine One, above the nozzle, apparently ruptured it did not explode. Burning fuel that escaped while the engine was still running then caused the fairing to rupture, as evidenced by the flight video recordings.

Upon Engine One losing pressure, it was immediately shut-down. At the same time, panels designed to relieve pressure within the engine bay were ejected to protect the stage and other engines. Almost instantaneously the onboard flight computer calculated a new ascent profile in real time, based on the remaining eight engines, to ensure that Dragon would still reach its correct orbit for rendezvousing and docking with the ISS.

The Falcon’s secondary payload, Orbcomm’s prototype OG2 communications satellite, didn’t fare quite as well and had to be dropped into a lower-than-planned orbit. However, the rocket did what it was designed to do, which is recover from an engine-out situation and complete its primary mission. The Saturn V also had this ability and boasted a 100 percent launch success rate despite engine loss on two flights. No other rocket currently flying can handle engine-outs and still complete its mission.

Video courtesy of SpaceX

The CRS-1 post-flight investigation board will continue to look at the flight data in an effort to understand what happened to Engine One. While responsibility for resolving the issue rests firmly with SpaceX, as the launch provider, the company is able to draw upon NASA’s vast experience in failure analysis in order to understand the sequence of events that led up to the failure and avoid a similar incident on future flights.

When CRS-2 does eventually depart from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, it will be the fourth flight of a Dragon spacecraft and the fifth for the Falcon 9 rocket. It will also mark the first excursion of the Dragon detachable trunk section, which allows the transport of unpressurized cargo to the ISS. Meanwhile, NASA officials have confirmed that the space station is well stocked with supplies and its operations will not be affected by Dragon’s delay.

Missions » ISS » COTS » Missions » ISS »

6 comments to Next SpaceX Commercial Resupply Flight Delayed

  • Tracy

    “The Saturn V also had this ability and boasted a 100 percent launch success rate despite engine loss on two flights. No other rocket currently flying can handle engine-outs and still complete its mission.”

    Anyone how was Apollo able to do this 40 years ago. Is this not that big of a capability?

    • Tracy, having an engine out capability is a very robust aspect of a launch system. Von Braun was the genius designer behind the Saturn group of rockets. Von Braun is one of Elon Musk’s hero’s. Hence he looked very carefully at the German scientists designs and requirements for any rocket he subsequently designed.
      The guys back in the 50′s and 60′s created engineering that they still have problems recreating today. Like they say, “There’s nothing new in the world.”

  • Joe

    “No other rocket currently flying can handle engine-outs and still complete its mission.”

    Carefully and cleverly phrased as the Space Shuttle also had an engine out capability.

    • Matt McClanahan

      I’m not sure how much care or cleverness was really necessary, it’s a pretty straightforward statement. The capabilities of retired systems isn’t interesting when discussing the present.

      • Joe

        “The capabilities of retired systems isn’t interesting when discussing the present.”

        Really, then why was the Falcon 9 being compared to the even older Saturn 5?

        But OK, let’s discuss the present:

        “Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX is tasked with supplying Dragon spacecraft and the two-stage Falcon 9 launch vehicles to NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. The speed in which SpaceX has reached this historic milestone has been nothing short of a whirlwind.”

        The Contract was begun in 2005 at which time SpaceX promised to begin flying operational cargo missions in November 2009 (roughly four years). They flew their first (limitedly successful) operational cargo mission in October 2012. That is approximately seven years and 2 years 11 months late (about 73% late). I am glad for their limited success but that is not really a “whirlwind”.

        “Burning fuel that escaped while the engine was still running then caused the fairing to rupture, as evidenced by the flight video recordings.”

        “At the same time, panels designed to relieve pressure within the engine bay were ejected to protect the stage and other engines.”

        Note to the author:

        David,

        This is not intended as disparagement to you. The situation is currently confused. One story says the objects falling from the vehicle were parts of the fairing dislodged by the incident, another (based on the initial SpaceX press release) say it was intentionally jettisoned panels. Your article seems to imply it was both. Do you have any idea if there is a consistent SpaceX position on this?

        • Matt McClanahan

          “The Contract was begun in 2005 at which time SpaceX promised to begin flying operational cargo missions in November 2009 (roughly four years). They flew their first (limitedly successful) operational cargo mission in October 2012. That is approximately seven years and 2 years 11 months late (about 73% late). I am glad for their limited success but that is not really a “whirlwind”.”

          What I’ve always wondered when people discuss how “fast” or “slow” SpaceX developed is what they’re measuring it against. Do we have another example anywhere for a company (with or without government contract) building an orbital system from scratch? The vast majority of orbital launch platforms directly descend from ICBMs, after all, so it doesn’t seem worthwhile to try comparing any of those. I hesitate to compare it to Saturn V because of the space race pressure and the massive investment involved.

          Of course, it’s also unclear when Falcon 9′s development actually started. I seriously doubt it began with the COTS award, so somewhere between 2002 and 2006.