Wall Street Journal: Draft GAO Report Finds Problems with SpaceX Turbine Blades

Wall Street Journal: Draft GAO Report Finds Problems with SpaceX Turbine Blades

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported today that a draft study from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals problems with the turbine blades on SpaceX rockets that could impact safety and therefore the schedule for commercial crew launches.  A GAO spokesman told SpacePolicyOnline.com that he could not confirm the contents of the report because it is only in draft form.

WSJ’s Andy Pasztor cites unnamed “government and industry officials familiar with the details of the report” as the sources of the story that GAO found “persistent cracking” of  turbine blades in SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket engines.  Pasztor goes on to say that NASA “has warned SpaceX that such cracks pose an unacceptable risk for manned flights.”

SpaceX did not respond to a request from SpacePolicyOnline.com for comment on the WSJ story by press time. Pasztor quotes an unnamed SpaceX spokesman as saying that the company is modifying its design to avoid the cracks.

GAO Public Affairs Managing Director Chuck Young could confirm to SpacePolicyOnline.com only that GAO has work underway in response to language in the House Appropriations Committee’s report to accompany the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill (H.R. 2578).   He said he could not comment on the contents of a draft report and GAO had not provided copies to reporters.  The final report is expected to be released by the end of the month.

GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.  It typically allows the agency it is reviewing to comment on drafts and incorporates the comments into its final report as appropriate.  It also publishes the text of the agency’s response as an appendix.

SpaceX and Boeing were selected by NASA in 2014 to complete development of crew space transportation systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) through public-private partnerships. The concept is that the government and the companies both fund the development costs for systems that will be owned and operated by the companies, while the government guarantees to purchase a certain number of launches from them.  NASA does this already for robotic cargo spaceflights that resupply the ISS — commercial cargo.  SpaceX and Orbital ATK currently provide commercial cargo services for NASA and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) will join them in the future.

NASA initiated the companion commercial crew program in FY2011 with the expectation that the systems would be operational by 2015. That date slipped to 2017 at least in part because Congress provided less funding than requested in the program’s early years.  That eventually changed, however, and Congress provided full or almost full funding for FY2015 and FY2016.  The FY2017 budget has not been approved yet.  NASA is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) at its FY2016 level, which in the case of commercial crew is actually more than the request for FY2017. 

While NASA’s share of the funding may not be an issue now, the date for both SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew flights already has slipped to 2018 and few would be surprised if flights are further delayed. 

In its most recent annual report, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) concluded that “there is still much left to do from a technical perspective” for both companies’ systems — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner.  While it found that there is “no evidence that needed safety considerations are being sacrificed merely to maintain schedule” and praised NASA’s “excellent certification process,” it cited challenges facing each company.   SpaceX turbine blades were not among the issues addressed in the ASAP report.   For SpaceX, it focused on the company’s “load and go” procedure under which SpaceX plans to fuel the Falcon 9 rocket just prior to launch when the crew is already aboard. 

That has never been done in the U.S. human spaceflight program before for safety reasons. The on-pad explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on September 1, 2016 while it was being fueled for a pre-launch test accentuated those concerns.  Its payload, an Israeli commercial communications satellite (AMOS-6), was destroyed in the accident.  SpaceX noted at the time that if a crew had been aboard, the Crew Dragon’s emergency abort system would have carried the capsule away from the pad and the crew would have been safe.  Nevertheless, NASA’s International Space Station Advisory Committee expressed alarm about SpaceX’s plan in November 2016.  ASAP’s January 2017 report echoed those concerns and “strongly” encouraged NASA “to scrutinize” SpaceX’s  plan and ensure that any additional risks are worth the gains.

NASA is and will remain dependent on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS
and provide “lifeboat” services for the crews while they are aboard
the ISS until the commercial crew systems are operational.   NASA has
not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle
program was terminated in 2011.

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