NASA delays commercial crew mission to study Falcon 9 engine issue

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WASHINGTON — NASA is delaying the launch of the first operational SpaceX commercial crew mission to the first half of November to provide more time to review a problem during a recent Falcon 9 launch attempt.

NASA announced Oct. 10 the Crew-1 mission, which was scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 in the early morning hours of Oct. 31 from the Kennedy Space Center, will now launch no earlier than early to mid-November.

The delay, the agency said, will provide more time for SpaceX “to complete hardware testing and data reviews as the company evaluates off-nominal behavior of Falcon 9 first stage engine gas generators observed during a recent non-NASA mission launch attempt.” NASA did not identify the specific launch attempt in question, but an Oct. 2 launch of a Falcon 9 carrying a GPS 3 satellite was scrubbed just two seconds before liftoff because of SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk later described as an “unexpected pressure rise in the turbomachinery gas generator.”

“With the high cadence of missions SpaceX performs, it really gives us incredible insight into this commercial system and helps us make informed decisions about the status of our missions,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in the agency statement. She said an investigation into the problem is ongoing “and we should be a lot smarter within the coming week.”

Both the Crew-1 and the GPS 3 missions are using new Falcon 9 first stages that have not previously launched. After the GPS 3 scrub, SpaceX successfully launched another Falcon 9 Oct. 6 carrying 60 Starlink satellites using a booster making its third flight. SpaceX has yet to reschedule the GPS 3 launch.

NASA said the issue with the Crew-1 mission will not delay another Falcon 9 launch, of the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich Earth observation satellite, scheduled for Nov. 10 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. That mission will also use a new Falcon 9 first stage. Another Falcon 9, likely with a previously flown first stage, will launch a cargo Dragon spacecraft for NASA in late November or early December.

The Crew-1 mission will transport NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, to the International Space Station for a six-month stay. NASA previously delayed the launch from Oct. 23 to Oct. 31 to provide more time to wrap up certification work of the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

“For this critical launch, we’re happy to support NASA and any schedule that they need,” Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said at a Sept. 29 NASA briefing about the Crew-1 mission just after the agency announced the delay to Oct. 31. “We will fly when we are ready to fly.”

The delay won’t affect another crewed mission to the ISS. The Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft carrying NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov is scheduled to launch at 1:45 a.m. Eastern Oct. 14 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, docking with the station three hours later.

The current ISS crew of NASA’s Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos’ Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner will leave the station one week later, returning to Earth on the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft.