SpaceX Slips Falcon 9 Return to Flight into January

Credit: USLaunchReport.com
Credit: USLaunchReport.com

SpaceX provided the following update on the Falcon 9 return to flight this morning:

We are finalizing the investigation into our September 1 anomaly and are working to complete the final steps necessary to safely and reliably return to flight, now in early January with the launch of Iridium-1. This allows for additional time to close-out vehicle preparations and complete extended testing to help ensure the highest possible level of mission assurance prior to launch.

You will undoubtedly recall that the second stage of a Falcon 9 caught fire and exploded on the launch pad three months ago as it was being fueled for a pre-flight engine test. A Spacecom communications satellite valued at $195 million was destroyed in the accident.

SpaceX has said the catastrophic failure was caused by a large breach in the cryogenic helium composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the upper stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank. The company said engineers have been able to reproduce the failure in tests entirely through helium loading conditions.

SpaceX will finish 2016 with 8 successful launches and 1 launch pad failure that destroyed the payload. This figure is far below the 18 launches Elon Musk’s company had planned to conduct during the year.

The decision to postpone the return to flight points to the problems SpaceX has experienced in  increase its launch cadence. Cryogenic helium tanks have played a role in accidents and delays that have thwarted that goal during the past three years.

SpaceX launched only three times in 2013. The number of flights doubled to six in 2014, but still fell short of the 11 or 12 launches the company hoped to fly. Falcon 9 was plagued by helium leaks throughout the year that resulted in substantial delays.

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

SpaceX reeling off five successful launches to start 2015 before the sixth Falcon 9 exploded in flight at the end of June. The accident, which destroyed a Dragon supply ship, was blamed on a second stage helium tank breaking free in the second stage LOX tank, causing the vehicle to explode.

The company successfully returned to flight at the end of December, giving SpaceX six successful launches and one failure for 2015. That number was below the monthly launch cadence the company hoped to achieve and represented no improvement in terms of successful flights over 2014.

SpaceX successfully launched eight Falcon 9 boosters in 2016 before the fire and explosion on Sept. 1. With no further flights planned for the year, the company will end up 10 launches short of its objective for the year.

The delays have further backed up SpaceX’s already crowded launch manifest, which includes about 70 flights for a range of commercial and government customers. The problems have caused at least one customer has begun to look elsewhere. Last month, Inmarsat said it was actively seeking other options for launching its fourth Global Xpress satellite, which had been due to fly this year aboard Falcon 9.

SpaceX also has repeated delayed flight tests of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which will carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The original plan was to fly an automated Crew Dragon to ISS in March 2016, followed by a flight test with a crew in September of this year. The vehicle would be certified to carry crew to the station on a commercial basis in April 2017.

The first Crew Dragon flight without astronauts has been pushed back to summer 2017. However, that schedule has reportedly slipped once again, although no one is saying by how much. SpaceX has not updated its public crew schedule since June, prior to the Falcon 9 launch pad failure.

In a report released the same day as the accident, NASA’s Inspector General (IG) reported it was unlikely that SpaceX or Boeing would begin flying crews to ISS on a commercial basis before the end of 2018. The audit said both companies were experiencing technical problems in developing the vehicles. The IG also found delays in NASA’s review of hazard reports from the two companies.

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  • JamesG

    Better safe than, “Oh noes! No’ again!”

  • Robert G. Oler

    the SpaceX anthem

  • Your rocket sucks less than SpaceX’s rocket, I’m sure of that, Robert.

    That’s because it’s called the SLS and it never flies. And it never will.

  • windbourne

    it is the last paragraph that concerns me the most.
    We need human launch capability ASAP.

  • therealdmt

    Well, hardly unexpected. With the pad explosion in September, the original stated goal of a return to flight in November was almost preposterous, then December was incredibly ambitious. If it flies successfully in early January, 4 months, well, that will have been a nice quick recovery (if dissapointing in respect to SpaceX’s overly ambitious stated goals). The main worry will then be, “Did they rush it too fast?”. Possibly having rushed the investigation and especially the conclusions of the investigation (He bottle strut failure due to flawed manufacturing by their subcontractor) in their haste to return to flight is still a concern in relation to the June 2015 failure.

    My guess is the holdup is that not all stakeholders have signed off on SpaceX,s conclusions as to root cause. SpaceX is confident that it’s a fueling procedures problem and that the failure mode can simply be avoided by modifying the fueling procedure, so, let’s go! One or more other participants/monitors in the investigation, however, are saying, “woah, woah there. Not so fast. Things aren’t as clear as all that”. So, SpaceX has announced return to flight and gotten rockets out to the launch complexes, etc. and is left twiddling their collective thumbs, waiting on the sign off and (from their perspective) hopefully applying subtle public pressure on the other investigation participants to sign off on the investigation and get back into the business of flying. Anyway, just my speculation.

  • Saturn13

    I hope that Iridium has asked SpaceX to build them a launcher with the helium tanks outside the LOX tanks. There should be enough time. Musk has said he will not recover the current version anyway, so a special throw-away version for Iridium should be possible. When LOX can be dropped on asphalt and it ignites from the shock, having epoxy(petro chemical) and carbon inside LOX seems like asking for trouble.

  • JamesG

    Not likely. That would require a cascade of engineering changes and recertifications. It would take longer and cost more than fixing the root problem with the tank insitu, even if that meant going to heavier metal tanks.

  • Hug Doug

    Just how long do you think it would take to do a major design change like that?? That would be like moving the gas tank of your car from underneath the car to on top of the roof. You’d basically have to re-work the entire car.

  • Hug Doug

    It sounds like the final investigation report has not been completed yet. I have no idea how long it will take the FAA to review the final report and sign off on it.

    “[SpaceX] has yet to present a final report to the FAA’s commercial space office, which licenses commercial launches to ensure they meet public safety and liability requirements, according to an agency spokesman. While SpaceX has an FAA license to launch Falcon 9 on commercial missions, the Sept. 1 mishap may require amendments to the company’s existing license before it can launch the “Iridium NEXT” spacecraft.

    “The investigation into the SpaceX mishap is ongoing,” the agency spokesman said Wednesday. “The FAA continues to work closely with SpaceX as they conduct the investigation in compliance with all applicable regulations and license requirements. The FAA has not issued a license to SpaceX for a launch in December or January at this time.”

    per http://aviationweek.com/connected-aerospace/spacex-still-lacks-license-launch-iridium

  • Snofru Chufu

    That is an extreme exaggeration.

  • Hug Doug

    What do you think would be a more accurate analogy?

  • windbourne

    switching HE tanke to metal, or simply coating it with metal, is far more likely than moving it.

  • Robert G. Oler

    I would cancel SLS and have held that position from the moment it was announced…next

  • But but but … Amurka! Then Amurka won’t have a rocket!

    Sounds like a plan. You can fly on SpaceX’s ‘sucky’ rocket.

  • Paul451

    Actually it’s an inadequate analogy. It’s much easier to move the fuel tank on a car than to move the He bottles on F9.

  • Paul451

    I wonder if you could sputter glass over the composite. Similar to the technique used for plastic beer bottles.

    Inert and impermeable. Thin enough to be both flexible (instead of brittle) and low mass.

  • windbourne

    I like it. That is a good idea.

  • patb2009

    Get’s brittle at low temperature.

    I’m sure SpaceX can fix this issue. The real question is Assuming it’s the COPV, they’ve flown a lot of them, and one or two have failed catastrophically. How many other low probability failure modes are out there. If you have a 1:10,000 failure rate in welds per foot but you have 700 feet of welds, It starts becoming problematic over time. There are a lot of things like that.

  • Paul451

    Get’s brittle at low temperature.

    From what I’ve seen, thin glass fibre doesn’t lose its flexibility (or strength) at low temps, I would expect the same for thin-film (it is, after all, intended for non-cryo “low” temp use.)

    The issue with low temps and composites is the polymer matrix. But I’m not talking about using the glass as a reinforcing in the existing composite-overwrap, but adding a micro-coating as a seal to prevent oxygen infusion into the overwrap matrix.