SpaceX Discovers Cracks Inside Falcon 9 Ahead of NASA Astronaut Launch

Veloz Lamma

SpaceX Discovers Cracks Inside Falcon 9 Ahead of NASA Astronaut Launch

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After a flight readiness review stretched late into the evening on Sunday, SpaceX and NASA gave the go ahead for agency’s Crew-8 mission to the International Space Station (ISS). As of now, Crew-8 is slated to take to the skies in March, with the mission marking the fifth mission of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft. SpaceX and NASA shared details about the issues that surfaced at the FRR, with the list of items covering concerns with the Dragon’s parachutes and its valves.

NASA, SpaceX Discuss Stiching, Valves & Launch Site Issues Ahead Of Upcoming Astronaut Launch

When compared to SpaceX’s other missions, such as the Falcon 9 launch for Starlink satellites that also took off from Florida earlier today, the Dragon launches are rare. The Crew-8 mission will mark SpaceX’s first crew launch of the year, and its third launch to the ISS in 2024. Ahead of the launch, SpaceX and NASA had to work together on crucial issues to certify Crew Dragon Endeavour for its fifth launch and give the vehicle the go ahead as part of the Flight Readiness Review (FRR) ahead of other reviews.

The Crew Dragon Endeavour was the first spacecraft that flew astronauts as part of SpaceX’s crewed spaceflight program. Before they could clear the vehicle for its upcoming launch, SpaceX and NASA had to work on several areas to keep astronauts safe. According to NASA’s Steve Stitch, this flight in particular involved focus on the vehicle’s propellant systems and the associated oxidizer valve corrosion.

He shared:

You know for this flight, this is the fifth flight of Endeavour. So we took a little extra time to talk through the work that we had done, to make sure that we were ready to go fly that vehicle. And in particular, we had a number of special topics relative to the prop system. You know we had some valve corrosion in the oxidizer valves, both on the low pressure side which is used on orbit, and then the side for aborts.

We talked through the valve corrosion and we’ve replaced many of the valves in the system. All tank isolation valves are new, and then we’ve replaced one of the manifold valves during the flow. We’ve checked them all out as we loaded propellant and the vehicle’s in good shape there.

We also replaced five of the Super Draco throttle valves. As we’ve seen the corrosion build in the systems, they didn’t meet the criteria to fly those valves. We replaced those as well.

The Super Draco thrusters being installed on the Crew Dragon in October 2019. Image: SpaceX

Apart from the valves, a perennial issue of spaceflight, SpaceX and NASA also worked on off nominal readings for oxidizer at the launch site for a recent mission to ensure that the Falcon 9 was safe to launch with a crew on board. While these covered most of the issues with respect to Dragon Endeavour, the review also included a study of the Falcon 9’s build and the Dragon spacecraft’s parachutes

According to Stich, SpaceX and NASA discovered cracks inside the Falcon 9. These were present in weld that connects the Merlin engine’s thrust vector control (TVC) unit with thrust chamber. Other issues covered include concerns about some build areas of the Dragon currently in space.

SpaceX’s Gerstenamier stressed that the firm benefits a lot from regularly flying to the station, and several of the discussions surrounding the FRR for Crew-8 came from these. These missions include SpaceX’s latest private spaceflight mission, the Ax-1 mission for Axiom Space, with the executive adding that his firm also completed the post flight review for Ax-1 earlier today.

SpaceX will hot fire test the Falcon 9 for this mission later this week along with dry dress rehearsal on Tuesday morning right around the same time the mission will take off.

NASA is also working on fasteners on the vehicle on ground and these checkouts should be closed by mid upcoming week explained Stitch.

Commenting on the weld cracking, Gerstenmaier added:

In terms of the weld cracking, some of the discussions there were on, they were. . .where the thrust vector control attaches to their nozzles, it moves the nozzles around on both M1-D and also on MVac. It turns out that some of that cracking actually occurs during the welding process. It takes a lot of temperature to actually get that weld in place. And when that weld gets put in place sometimes there’s some small internal cracks that. . they can occur in that weld.

We have a small little borescope hole that we’re able to go in to that and look behind that weld and verify that crack is not a concern. Turns out we have a lot of capability in that weld. The cracks are occurring in the middle of the weld region, the high stress regions are at the end. We don’t have any cracking at the end, so we have plenty of margins in these systems. So even though it’s a fairly new system, it’s not an age related cracking per say but it’s actually probably the part of the manufacturing process. And we’ll figure out a way to dial in the manufacturing process to make it more effective and not have these cracks. But right now we have plenty of margin and should be fine moving forward.

After the Crew-8 launch, NASA will see the Crew-7 return to Earth and prepare for yet another test flight of Boeing’s Starliner. The Crew Dragon is currently certified to fly five missions per vehicle, which makes this flight particularly important. Officials on the call also shared that SpaceX plans to extend the service life of its ships to as many as 15 missions per vehicle. Data from this flight will allow SpaceX to see which areas of Dragon need refurbishment so that it can convince NASA for any changes.

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