Problems with SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket engines could keep the private space fleet from ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station and threaten its government contracts.
A new report from the Government Accountability Office shows that turbine blades used to pump fuel into Falcon 9 rocket engines have a tendency to crack under stress, according to a Wall Street Journal article.
The cracking issue is especially concerning on Falcon 9 rockets because they’re designed to be reused, meaning they’ll repeatedly undergo the stress of launch making them more susceptible to mechanical failure, which usually means an explosion.
The GAO report hasn’t been published yet, so government officials can’t comment on it, but WSJ reports that congressional investigators consider the Falcon 9 engine cracking issue to be a persistent problem that could pose a major safety threat.
“Such cracks pose an unacceptable risk for manned flights.”
The tendency for the turbine blades, commonly known as turbopumps, to crack means the SpaceX rockets might not be the best choice for NASA astronauts to ride in if the space agency wants to meet its safety goal. NASA has a stated goal of limiting astronauts fatalities to one death in 270 launches.
The cracking issue is a different problem from the fueling difficulty that caused a Falcon 9 rocket to explode, or experience a fast fire using SpaceX lingo, last year. That explosion raised questions on the safety of the company’s fueling methods and whether they would endanger the lives of astronauts hitching a ride to the ISS.
The engine cracking problem could spell trouble for the company’s plan to become the first private carrier to carry astronauts to the International Space Station beginning in 2018.
When asked about the government report, SpaceX spokesman John Taylor had this to say to Popular Science.
“We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks. However, we are modifying the design to avoid them altogether. This will be part of the final design iteration on Falcon 9. SpaceX has established a plan in partnership with NASA to qualify engines for manned spaceflight.”
He might be referring to the Falcon 9 Block 5, the next iteration of the SpaceX rocket scheduled to go into production soon.
Apparently, NASA officials have known about the problem for some time now and is working with the private space travel company to fix the issue. It could take a while to fix the problem, however, especially if SpaceX needs to use larger parts, Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, told the Wall Street Journal.
“We’re talking to [SpaceX] about turbo machinery. We know how to fix them.”
The news comes as SpaceX announced at least a two-week delay on launches from its Cape Canaveral pad and highlights the technical issues facing Elon Musk’s private space travel company.
SpaceX had originally intended to double the number of rockets it launched last year to meet government contracts and commercial obligations put on hold after the Falcon 9 rocket explosion last year.
Boeing is also expected to miss a 2018 deadline to start carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS, raising issues with President Trump’s idea to contract out space flights to private companies.
The company is having difficulties with the parachute system designed to deploy after reentry and help crew capsules return to land safely.
Until the space travel companies can meet certification requirements, NASA astronauts will be forced to ride Russian Soyuz rockets to the ISS as they’ve done since the shuttle fleet was retired in 2011.
When the shuttle fleet was still flying, Russia was charging $21.8 million per seat, but since then has increased prices some 370 percent and by 2018 will be charging the space agency $81 million for a single berth.
In contrast, NASA plans to spend $58 million for a seat aboard a SpaceX or Boeing spacecraft.
[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]