Crew-1 Launch to ISS Delayed Due To Rocket Anomaly

Crew-1 Launch to ISS Delayed Due To Rocket Anomaly

SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Crew-1, has been delayed from October 31 to early-to-mid November. Crew Dragon is launched by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. NASA said this afternoon that SpaceX is investigating an anomaly in the Falcon 9’s first stage engines during a recent non-NASA launch attempt. Two other NASA missions awaiting launch by Falcon 9 rockets could also be affected.

Kathy Lueders, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, said “we should be a lot smarter within the coming week.” She praised the NASA-SpaceX working relationship and “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.”

Before becoming Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations in June, Lueders was the manager of NASA’s commercial crew program that oversees NASA’s certification of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and its Boeing counterpart, Starliner, for NASA use.

NASA’s announcement today said SpaceX is investigating “off-nominal behavior of Falcon 9 first stage engine gas generators” during a recent non-NASA launch attempt. Presumably that is a reference to the scrub of the GPS III-4 launch on October 2 just two seconds before liftoff.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted afterwards that “we will need to make a lot of improvements to have a chance of completing 48 launches next year” and later added that he was heading to Cape Canaveral “to review hardware in person” and conduct a broad review of operations.

SpaceX did go ahead with a launch of its own Starlink satellites on October 6, but Lueders’ use of the term “launch attempt” suggests that the problem was with the GPS III-4 scrub, not Starlink. GPS III-4 is the fourth of DOD’s new GPS III generation of positioning, navigation and timing satellites.

Neither SpaceX nor Musk tweeted anything about NASA’s announcement or responded to an emailed request for comment by press time.

NASA had just delayed the Crew-1 launch from October 23 to October 31 to give everyone some breathing room during a hectic period on ISS. A new crew is arriving on a Soyuz spacecraft on October 14, the current crew is leaving on October 21, and Crew-1 would have arrived just three days later.  October 31 also would coincide with the anniversary of the launch of the first ISS crew exactly 20 years ago.

Crew-1 astronauts (L-R): Shannon Walker (NASA), Victor Glover (NASA), Michael Hopkins (NASA), Soichi Noguchi (JAXA). Credit: NASA

SpaceX and Boeing are developing their crew space transportation systems as Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) with NASA.  They retain ownership of the spacecraft while NASA simply purchases services from them.  Both must demonstrate the systems meet NASA safety requirements, however, before NASA puts its astronauts on board.

Crew Dragon completed its uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, in March 2019 and its crewed test flight, Demo-2, earlier this year. NASA is now in the final stages of certifying the system for operational use. Crew-1 is that first operational mission.

SpaceX has a full roster of Falcon 9 launches for government and commercial customers, including two more for NASA this year: the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich ocean altimetry mission on November 10 and the next SpaceX cargo resupply mission, CRS-21, to the ISS in November or December.

Lueders acknowledged those launch dates also could be affected: “NASA and SpaceX will use the data from the company’s hardware testing and reviews to ensure these critical missions are carried out with the highest level of safety.”

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