SpaceX Slips Falcon 9 Return to Flight into January


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.