NASA to investigate recent SpaceX Falcon 9 engine failure

NASA will review an engine failure last month that caused Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 rocket booster to land in the sea after a satellite launch, as the U.S. agency prepares for the next crewed flight to the International Space Station in April.

One of the Falcon 9’s nine Merlin engines shut down Feb. 15 during ascent because of a hole in one of the covers, or “boots,” around the top of each engine, Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of human spaceflight, said Monday at a NASA news conference.

The hole allowed hot gas into the engine, which shut off as designed, Reed said. But that meant that the rocket had insufficient thrust during its landing burn to reach a drone ship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.

The engine fault didn’t prevent the rocket from lifting SpaceX’s Starlink satellites into orbit. Reed said the boot was one of the oldest components on one of the company’s older Falcon 9 rockets, which are designed to fly as many as 10 times without major overhauls.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to “understand that anomaly” before the April flight with astronauts, Steve Stich, the agency’s commercial crew manager, told reporters as he discussed that mission and a busy April at the space station.

“We will follow along with SpaceX’s investigation and we will look at that,” Stich said.

Boeing Delay

NASA also confirmed Monday that an April 2 test flight for Boeing Co.’s Starliner will be delayed. No new date has been set, the agency said.

The delay was partly due to productivity losses from the extreme cold in Texas last month and widespread loss of power in the Houston area, NASA said.

Boeing’s first test flight with astronauts is tentatively set for September, Stich said.

NASA also provided an update on several other items at the briefing:

  • SpaceX’s crewed launch scheduled for April 20 is likely to move a few days because of orbital mechanics and the space station’s positioning
  • NASA plans to relocate the SpaceX Dragon now at the station to a different node so that the crew arriving next month on another Dragon vehicle can berth in the now-occupied spot
  • NASA wants to return the astronauts from SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission, who are currently at the space station, before May 9
  • SpaceX’s next crewed flight will be with the Dragon vehicle that the company flew in May 2020 on its first test flight with astronauts
  • NASA is nearing a new arrangement with Russia’s space agency for additional seats on its Soyuz rocket, with an announcement expected this month. NASA officials said they are working to allow for Russian cosmonauts to fly aboard the Boeing and SpaceX vehicles while still using Soyuz for NASA astronauts.

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NASA to investigate recent SpaceX Falcon 9 engine failure