NASA to participate in SpaceX engine anomaly investigation

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WASHINGTON — NASA representatives will be part of an ongoing SpaceX investigation into an engine anomaly on a recent Falcon 9 launch as the company prepares for a Crew Dragon mission carrying two NASA astronauts.

NASA spokesman Josh Finch said March 24 that personnel from NASA’s commercial crew program will be represented in SpaceX’s investigation of an engine that prematurely shut down during a March 18 launch of 60 Starlink satellites. That participation is intended to comply with provisions in SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap, contract with NASA.

“According to the CCtCap contracts, SpaceX is required to make available to NASA all data and resulting reports,” Finch said. “SpaceX, with NASA’s concurrence, would need to implement any corrective actions found during the investigation related to its commercial crew work prior to its flight test with astronauts to the International Space Station.”

During the March 18 launch, one of nine Merlin engines in the rocket’s first stage shut down early. Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, said in tweets shortly after the launch that the malfunction did not affect the rocket’s ability to place the Starlink satellites into their planned orbit, as SpaceX has frequently touted the “engine-out” redundancy of the vehicle. However, Musk said that a “thorough investigation” would be required before the rocket’s next launch.

That launch involved the fifth flight of that particular booster, the first time the company had attempted to fly a first stage that many times. A launch attempt March 15 was aborted at the last second because of what Musk called “slightly high power” levels from the engines as they ignited, a glitch that Musk said was “possibly, but not obviously” related to the engine anomaly during flight.

“This vehicle has seen a lot of wear, so today isn’t a big surprise,” he said March 18 of the engine anomaly. “Life leader rockets are used only for internal missions. Won’t risk non-SpaceX satellites.”

While SpaceX routinely uses previously flown first stages for many launches, the Demo-2 commercial crew launch will use a new booster and thus won’t be subject to the engine wear issues that may be linked to the anomaly on the previous launch. Finch said that launch is still scheduled for mid-to-late May, a schedule NASA announced March 18, but that the agency “would adjust the date based on review of the data, if appropriate.”

The anomaly on this launch was the first engine shutdown on a Falcon 9 launch since the company’s first cargo Dragon launch for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, CRS-1, in October 2012. One of nine Merlin engines failed during ascent, but the Dragon still reached orbit and carried out its mission. A secondary payload, an Orbcomm demonstration satellite, was lost when it was released into a lower-than-planned orbit. That launch involved an earlier version of both the Falcon 9 and the Merlin engine.

SpaceX has not provided an update on the status of that investigation since Musk’s tweets shortly after the launch, including when the investigation would be completed. SpaceX’s next launch, of the Argentine radar satellite SAOCOM 1B, was scheduled for March 30 but has been postponed because of international travel restrictions for the customer linked to the coronavirus pandemic.