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SpaceX swaps rocket engines ahead of next astronaut launch from Florida

NASA, SpaceX still targeting Nov. 14 to launch 4 astronauts from Kennedy Space Center

ORLANDO, Fla. – SpaceX was able to trace the cause of an issue with the Falcon 9 rocket detected in October leading to a launch abort and delaying the company’s next launch with NASA astronauts.

The private company, along with NASA officials, provided an update Wednesday ahead of the next -- and second ever -- SpaceX launch with NASA astronauts, now scheduled for Nov. 14 from Kennedy Space Center. The mission will be the first operational flight to the International Space Station for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

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The launch was originally slated to take place on Oct. 31 but after SpaceX aborted an unrelated launch of an Air Force satellite in October, the Crew-1 mission was delayed to allow SpaceX time to resolve the issue.

“When we looked at the data we saw that two of the engines attempted to start early, and the auto abort prevented that, and by doing that it prevented a possible hot start that could have been damaging to the engine hardware,” SpaceX vice president of build and flight reliability Hans Koenigsmann said of the issue detected during the GPS-III satellite launch attempt.

The company pulled the rocket engines and was able to duplicate the problem at its testing site in Texas.

“This is one of those rare cases where we were actually able to replicate it in Texas, and it was great for for troubleshooting. It did the same thing on the test stand,” Koenigsmann said, adding engineers found the issue was caused by a red-lacquer like substance blocking a relief valve. The substance was a blocking agent left over from the vehicle build, he explained.

“That caused it to function a little bit earlier than it was supposed to do,” he said.

SpaceX looked at all the engine startup signatures across the Falcon 9 fleet and found “similar early tendencies on the Crew-1 booster” as well as three others. As a result, SpaceX is changing out two of the engines on the boosters for ones that have clean vent holes and that have been tested for the issue.

Koenigsmann said the investigation and the resolution “makes us a better vehicle and better engine going forward.”

NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich said NASA would like to see the Air Force GPS-III mission get off the ground before SpaceX launches Crew-1. A new date for that launch has not been announced.

SpaceX is in the process of swapping two engines on the Falcon 9 rocket′s first stage being prepped to launch American astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The astronauts have started their soft quarantines ahead of flight.

“This past Sunday they went into soft quarantine, which just means they take a little extra precautions, they’re still at home with their families,” Stitch said.

The astronauts are set to arrive at Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 6.

The four astronauts will catch a ride to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft they’ve named Resilience. After liftoff at 7:49 p.m., the spacecraft will dock about eight and a half hours later around 4 a.m. ET.

If the launch delays, there is another opportunity on Nov. 15 at 7:27 p.m.

There are several critical reviews that need to happen before launch, according to NASA, including the final flight readiness review NASA and SpaceX will conduct together. That is scheduled for Nov. 9.

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