SpaceX has dealt with its fair share of setbacks as it works toward crewed NASA flight certification. One of the company’s Dragon 2 spacecraft exploded during testing last year, but SpaceX managed to address that potential flaw surprisingly quickly. Now, the company’s launch timeline could be undone by a seemingly minor failure during an otherwise successful mission. NASA and SpaceX are currently examining the loss of an engine during the March 18th Starlink satellite launch, and the outcome could delay the first crewed launch yet again.
The March 18th Falcon 9 launch is in the books as a success — the booster made a historic fifth flight, and the second stage successfully deployed 60 new Starlink internet satellites. However, the booster didn’t make it back to the drone ship. The circumstances surrounding that minor setback are part of the NASA investigation.
SpaceX reported that one of the rocket’s nine Merlin 1D engines failed during ascent. The good news is the on-board flight computer was able to compensate for that by burning the remaining engines a bit longer. The video stream from the rocket appears to show the engine flaming out, but SpaceX didn’t discuss the anomaly during the broadcast. However, it noted several minutes later that the booster, known as B1058, had failed to land on the drone ship. Presumably, this was due to the lost engine.
NASA notes that SpaceX is required by the commercial crew contract to make all data and reports available to the agency. Currently, the first crewed launch, known as Demo-2, is on the books for May. If the investigation uncovers any necessary corrective actions, the May launch timeline could be pushed back.
The March 18th incident is the first Merlin 1D in-flight failure, and the booster was on its fifth launch. SpaceX can simply rely on fresh Falcon 9 rockets to reduce any potential risk, but NASA is still covering all its bases with this investigation. Any delay would likely be minor — even if a crewed launch suffered a similar failure, the nine-engine Falcon 9 seems capable of compensating to get its cargo (human or otherwise) where it needs to go.
Boeing is the other major player in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Last year, it looked like Boeing might be able to send astronauts to the ISS ahead of SpaceX, but the company’s uncrewed demo mission with the CST-100 Starliner ran into software issues, causing the capsule to end up in the wrong orbit and miss the ISS entirely. The SpaceX engine issue is comparatively minor.
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