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'Rocketry is tough' | NASA, SpaceX target Nov. 14 for Crew 1 launch after assessing Falcon 9 engine issue

This will be the second crewed launch of astronauts on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.
Credit: NASA/SpaceX

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A new target date of Nov. 14 has been set for the next launch of astronauts aboard SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

The Crew 1 launch is tentatively set for 7:49 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

The next crew’s launch was originally set for Halloween, but NASA said the delay to mid-November is to allow time for SpaceX to evaluate “off-nominal behavior” in a Falcon 9 rocket Merlin engine. During a press briefing Wednesday, leaders with NASA and SpaceX detailed how the Crew 1 delay was related to the Oct. 2 launch attempt of another Falcon 9 with a GPS satellite.

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Build and Flight Reliability at SpaceX, said that about two seconds before liftoff, the engine's auto abort system detected that two of the engines attempted to start early and shut it down. 

"We call it a hard start," Koenigsmann said. "It's not necessarily bad; it rattles the engine (and) could cause a little damage. But in general, you do not want that."

Koengismann said the issue was a red substance blocking a relief valve, and later SpaceX determined the substance was a lacquer masking agent leftover from when the engines were anodized -- or covered with a protective coating to prevent erosion.

Steve Stich, manager of NASA's Commerical Crew Program, said the process is pretty standard in aerospace engineering. But, Koenigsmann noted this red lacquer made its way into a tiny hole that led to a sequence of events and eventually the auto abort on Oct. 2. 

SpaceX said it's currently working with the vendors who take care of this process to make sure it doesn't happen with any more Merlin engines.

"Rocketry is tough and requires a lot of attention to detail," Koenigsmann said. "Rockets are humbling every day I work with them -- and it's always a challenge and it's always difficult and you have to be super diligent and on your toes to get this right."

As for Crew 1's Falcon 9, Stich said SpaceX is "in the process of swapping out two engines on the first stage." 

"We were able to fix something that was very subtle but can obviously have some negative impact on launch operations," Koenigsmann said, noting that Crew 1 has "some big milestones coming up, but everything is going according to the schedule and the plan."

The Crew 1 launch will be the first crew rotation mission of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and the next Crew Dragon launch following the historic Demo-2 mission with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley back in May. Crew 1 consists of NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and JAXA mission specialist Soichi Noguchi from Japan’s space agency.

After launch, the crew will spend about eight and a half hours flying to the International Space Station, where they will join Expedition 64 crew of NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov.

Right now, Crew 1 is in a "soft quarantine" and will begin a traditional quarantine this weekend. 

At the end of September, the crew announced the chosen name for their Dragon capsule: Resilience. Behnken and Hurley named their capsule Endeavour.


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