SpaceX Engineers Race to Repair Engines for May 22 Launch

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Today’s (May 19) historic launch of the first ever privately developed rocket bound for the International Space Station (ISS) was very surprisingly aborted at the last second when an engine glitch forced a dramatic shutdown of the Falcon 9 rockets 1st stage firing already in progress and as the NASA launch commentator was in the middle of announcing liftoff.

SpaceX and NASA are now targeting liftoff of the mission dubbed COTS 2, for Tuesday, May 22 at 3:44 AM EDT from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. There is another launch opportunity on May 23.

Later today, SpaceX engineers determined that a faulty valve caused the engine abort failure. They are now in a race against time to complete all the repair work and mandatory assurance testing required in order to be ready to achieve the new May 22 launch date.

The Falcon 9 rocket was designed and developed by SpaceX and the first stage is powered by nine Merlin 1 C engines. As the countdown clock ticked down to T-minus zero, all nine engines ignited. But engine #5 suddenly developed a “high chamber pressure” and computers instantaneously ordered a shutdown of thrust generation by all nine engines just 0.5 seconds from liftoff and the rocket therefore never left the pad, said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell at a briefing for reporters.

“We’ve had a cutoff,” announced NASA launch commentator George Diller. “Liftoff did not occur. We’ve had a launch abort. Standing by.”

After draining the explosive propellants, SpaceX engineers began inspecting the engines later today within hours of the aborted liftoff to determine the cause of the rocket engine malfunction.

“This is not a failure,” Shotwell told reporters at a post scrub media briefing. “We aborted with purpose. It would have been a failure if we lifted off with an engine trending in this direction.”

SpaceX may have caught a lucky break by being able to fix the rocket at the pad instead of a time consuming engine changout. Shotwell said that one possibility was to roll the Falcon 9 rocket back into the processing hangar and swap out the engine with a new one.

This evening SpaceX announced they had determined the cause of the engine failure.

“Today’s launch was aborted when the flight computer detected slightly high pressure in the engine 5 combustion chamber, said SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham. “We have discovered root cause and repairs are underway.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 engines ignite and shutdown at T Minus 0.5 seconds during May 19, 2012 launch abort at Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

“During rigorous inspections of the engine, SpaceX engineers discovered a faulty check valve on the Merlin engine. We are now in the process of replacing the failed valve. Those repairs should be complete tonight. We will continue to review data on Sunday. If things look good, we will be ready to attempt to launch on Tuesday, May 22nd at 3:44 AM Eastern.”

The purpose of Dragon is to carry some 1200 pounds of supplies up to orbit and dock at the ISS and partially replace the capabilities of NASA’s now retired space shuttle.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch abort on May 19, 2012 at Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert

SpaceX is under contract with NASA to conduct twelve resupply missions to carry about 44,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS for a cost of some $1.6 Billion.

Ken Kremer

T-0 Launch Abort for Dragon

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SpaceX’s attempt to launch their Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon spacecraft was aborted by the computer at T-0 due to a high pressure reading on engine 5 of the first stage. The rocket’s nine main engines were ignited, but were automaticalaly shut down before liftoff. The vehicle was safed with no apparent other issues. SpaceX and NASA are now looking at the next launch window, which is on Tuesday, May 22 at 0744 UTC, 3:44 EDT. Computer checks all launch components just prior to launch, which is an extra safety feature of the Falcon 9, so the good part of the abort is knowing that all the systems worked as designed to prevent a liftoff that wasn’t within the designed parameters. Since this is a test flight, the SpaceX team likely thinks of this a successful launch abort as opposed to a failed launch.

See the video below:

“I have watched and participated in more scrubs of the shuttle than I would have liked, but it’s just part of the launch business,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, former shuttle and ISS astronaut and President of the Commercial Space Federation. “I was extremely impressed with professionalism displayed by the SpaceX launch team in the moments after the scrub to safe the vehicle. We will have to wait for the team to perform the technical analysis of what caused the apparent high pressure in one of the engine’s combustion chambers and for SpaceX and NASA to decide when the next attempt will occur. This is not the outcome we were hoping for, but far better to detect and react to the problem while still in the pad than to have to deal with it in flight.”

When launched, Dragon will be the first commercial spacecraft to go to the International Space Station for cargo resupply.

We’ll have more details later, as SpaceX and NASA will have a press briefing later this morning.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Poised at Pad to Open New Space Era

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The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is now poised at the launch pad and set to open a completely new era in spaceflight. Hopes are sky high that Saturday mornings Falcon 9 launch represents the dawn of the commercial era in spaceflight akin to the startup of the commercial airline industry early in the 20th Century and will lead eventually lead to a vast expansion in the exploration and exploitation of space.

Engineers moved the rocket on rails last night about 600 feet from the processing hangar out to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and then raised it to the vertical launch position. See my photos here of the Falcon 9 taken less than 24 hours from the planned liftoff

Falcon 9 rocket is slated to lift off 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT). Credit: Ken Kremer

The mission is designated COTS 2 and entails the first ever attempt by a commercial firm to dock at the International Space Station, a feat heretofore only accomplished by sovereign nations.

The 157 foot tall Falcon 9 is topped by the Dragon spacecraft also developed by SpaceX and slated to liftoff at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT).

The high stakes mission is billed as a test flight and could be viewed by powerful Washington lawmakers as a boon or bust to the burgeoning commercial space industry.

Ken Kremer

Launch Day Timeline for SpaceX’s Dragon

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Saturday morning’s launch window for SpaceX’s historic test flight to the International Space Station lasts just one second. Company President Gwynne Shotwell predicted they have “better than a 50-50 shot on whether we lift off tomorrow,” she said at a press conference today, adding, “If we lift off, we’ll get to orbit.”

Shotwell and NASA officials outlined a myriad of systems and activities that have to go perfectly for the launch take place, and then it will be non-stop action for the duration of the flight to orbit and ultimately the berthing of Dragon to the ISS.

Launch is set for 08:55 UTC on May 19 (4:55 AM Eastern/1:15 AM Pacific.) Here’s a timeline of activities so you can follow along while you watch the launch:

08:45 UTC: The Terminal Count begins at T-10 minutes before launch

08:52:30 (T-00:02:30) SpaceX Launch Director verifies GO

T-00:00:03 Engine controller commands engine ignition sequence to start

08:55: Liftoff

T+0:02:58 1st Stage Shut Down (Main Engine Cut Off)
T+0:03:02 1st Stage Separates
T+0:03:09 2nd Stage Engine Start
T+0:09:00 2nd Stage Engine Cutoff

09:04:34 (T+0:09:35) Dragon separates from Falcon 9 and initializes its propulsion system.

09:06:30 (T+0:11:30) Deploy solar array

09:08 (T+0:13) On-Orbit Operations begin

Shotwell said that 2 hours and 26 minutes into the flight is the Guidance Navigation and Control (GNC) door is opened on the exterior of the capsule. “This is a key new feature for this mission, which basically exposes the Proximity Operations Sensors to space so we can see the ISS as we are approaching and allow us to get close enough to berth,” Shotwell explained. “Our star trackers also get a view of space at this time, so this is a very critical operation”

The first 24 hours into the flight, Dragon will be catching up or phasing with the ISS. On Flight Day 2 at about 40 hours into the flight, Dragon will the ISS and do a “flyunder” of the station and for about 10 hours, do some maneuvers to demonstrate the ability to stationkeep and fly about the ISS, all the while in contact with the space station and Mission Control. There will be a relative GPS demonstration, and the “critical operations and tests we need to execute and show NASA the data so that we can show them everything is working,” Shotwell said.

Then, Dragon will perform a re-rendezvous with a flyunder of about 2.5 kilometers below the station, then maniever in front of the station, raise up and go back around.

The Cupola of the ISS setup for Dragon capture. Credit: NASA/Don Pettit

Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers will be working Canadarm2 on the station, and will grapple Dragon on May 22, berthing it to the Harmony node.

If there are any problems, NASA, SpaceX and the crew on the ISS has the ability to call an abort, or Dragon could autonomously abort.

But everyone is hoping for smooth sailing.

Artist concept of Dragon berthing to the ISS. Credit: NASA

“By hour 75, if all is going well, we should be berthed to the station, which should be really great,” Shotwell said. “I know everyone at SpaceX is excited for this mission.”

The SpaceX launch webcast is scheduled for 1:15 AM Pacific / 4:15 AM Eastern / 08:15 UTC on May 19 at the SpaceX website, or you can watch on NASA TV starting at 08:30 UTC.

Right now the weather looks favorable for launch. If SpaceX can’t launch on the 19th, they can try again On May 22, 25th and 29th, which provide good launch opportunities. Other less than optimal dates for launch are the 23rd, 26th, and then the ISS enters into a period of high beta angle of the Sun, where there would be excessive heat surrounding the station, so the 29th of May is last date for awhile that SpaceX could launch Dragon.

What Will Happen During Tomorrow’s SpaceX Launch:

With less than a day left before SpaceX’s historic launch of the first commercial vehicle to the ISS, slated for 4:55 am EDT on Saturday, May 19, here’s a video of what will happen once the Falcon lifts off.

(Part of me really wishes that they’ll be pumping out some dramatic music when it launches!)

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The video, created by NASA in 2011, shows the events that will take place from the initial launch at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral facility to the release of the Dragon capsule and its eventual docking with the ISS on Tuesday, as well as its return to Earth (yes, it’s reusable!)

The Dragon capsule contains 674 lbs (305 kg) of food and supplies for the Expedition 31 crew.

In addition to what’s aboard Dragon, the Falcon rocket will also be taking the cremated remains of 308 people — including Star Trek actor James Doohan and NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper — into space, via a private company called Celestis.

Read more about tomorrow’s launch here. And to watch the event live, stay tuned to SpaceX.com.

Video: NASA

Update 5/19: As it turned out, none of the above occurred. Instead, this happened. Maybe better luck on Tuesday!

SpaceX says All Systems GO for Historic May 19 Blast Off to ISS

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In less than 48 hours, SpaceX is primed to make history and launch the first ever commercial rocket and spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) early Saturday morning on May 19.

Following today’s Launch Readiness Review (LRR), SpaceX was just given the official “GO” from NASA to proceed with the blastoff of the Falcon 9 at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This also marks the first night time liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket.

“Just passed final launch review with NASA”, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted this evening. “All systems go for liftoff on Sat morn”.

The SpaceX developed Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft is bolted on top of the two stage Falcon 9 rocket and stands 157 feet tall for the mission dubbed “COTS 2”. The Falcon 9 booster generates 1 million pounds of thrust

The official Air Force weather forecast gives a 70% chance of acceptable conditions for launch. The primary concern for launch day is a violation of the Cumulus Cloud Rule. On the heels of a significant drought, stormy weather has rolled into the Florida Space Coast and thunder is striking the area at the moment.

In the event of a launch scrub, the next launch opportunity comes in three days on May 22.

The launch will be broadcast live on NASA TV and via SpaceX Webcast at http://spacex.com

This SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket inside the processing hanger at Pad 40 is due for liftoff on May 19, 2012 to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

Technicians plan to roll the Falcon 9/Dragon duo out to the seaside launch pad tonight. The rocket will be moved on rail tracks about 600 feet from the processing hanger to the pad and vertically erected.

The purpose of Dragon is to carry supplies up to orbit and dock at the ISS and partially replace the capabilities of NASA’s now retired space shuttle. Dragon is a commercial spacecraft designed and developed by SpaceX.

SpaceX is under contract with NASA to conduct twelve resupply missions to the ISS to carry cargo back and forth for a cost of some $1.6 Billion.

The Dragon spacecraft is loaded with nearly 1200 pounds of non-critical cargo such as food and clothing on this flight. A collection of student experiments, commemorative patches, pins and emblems will also be on board Dragon’s upcoming test flight.

On Friday, Ken will be reporting from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral.

Ken Kremer

New Crew Arrives at Space Station

The crew aboard the International Space Station is now back to a compliment of six. New Expedition 31 crew members Gennady Padalka, Joe Acaba and Sergei Revin docked and have now been welcomed on board the ISS after the hatches opened Thursday at 08:10 UTC (4:10 a.m. EDT). They docked to the Poisk module at 4:36 UTC (12:36 a.m. EDT) after a two day journey that began in Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz TMA-04M spacecraft. While they’ll be in space for about six months, the new crew members will get right to work preparing for the arrival of the first commercial cargo craft to the ISS. SpaceX’s Dragon is scheduled to launch at 08:55 UTC (4:55 a.m. EDT) this Saturday, May 19, with the Canadarm2 grappling Dragon on May 22, berthing it to the Harmony node.

SpaceX Dragon Launch Slides to May 19

[/caption]SpaceX has announced that the upcoming launch of the firms Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft on the commercial COTS 2 mission has been postponed to a new target date of no earlier than May 19 with a backup launch date of May 22.

On May 19, the Falcon 9 rocket would lift off on its first night time launch at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Two launch opportunities had been available this week on May 7 and May 10, following the most recent slip from April 30.

SpaceX managers made the decision – in consultation with NASA – to delay the COTS 2 launch in order to complete further highly critical testing and verifications of all the flight software requirements for the Dragon spacecraft to safely and successfully carry its mission of rendezvousing and docking with the International Space Station (ISS).

“SpaceX and NASA are nearing completion of the software assurance process, and SpaceX is submitting a request to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for a May 19th launch target with a backup on May 22nd,” said SpaceX spokesperson Kirstin Grantham.

“Thus far, no issues have been uncovered during this process, but with a mission of this complexity we want to be extremely diligent.”

May 10 was the last window of opportunity this week because of the pending May 14 blast off of a new Russian Soyuz TMA-04M capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with three fresh crew members bound for the ISS which will restore the outpost to a full crew complement of 6 human residents.

The Falcon 9 and Dragon can only be launched about every three days.

The purpose of Dragon is to carry supplies up to and back from the ISS. Dragon is a commercial spacecraft developed by SpaceX and designed to replace some of the cargo resupply functions previously conducted by NASA’s fleet of prematurely retired Space Shuttle orbiters. At this moment the US has zero capability to launch cargo or crews to the ISS.

SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS on 1st test flight and Station Docking in 2012. Astronauts will grapple it with the robotic arm and berth it at the Earth facing port of the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

In response to the SpaceX announcement, NASA issued the following statement from from William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington:

“After additional reviews and discussions between the SpaceX and NASA teams, we are in a position to proceed toward this important launch. The teamwork provided by these teams is phenomenal. There are a few remaining open items, but we are ready to support SpaceX for its new launch date of May 19.”

SpaceX is under contract with NASA to conduct twelve resupply missions to the ISS to carry cargo back and forth for a cost of some $1.6 Billion.

Dragon is loaded with nearly 1200 pounds of non-critical cargo such as food and clothing on this flight.

The COTS 2 mission has been repeatedly delayed since the originally planned target of mid-2011 when SpaceX requested that the COTS 2 and 3 flights be combined into one mission to save time. The first Dragon docking to the ISS was initially planned for the COTS 3 mission.

This SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket inside the processing hanger at Pad 40 is due for liftoff on May 19, 2012 to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

Ken Kremer

Weekly Space Hangout – May 3, 2012

Here’s the May 3, 2012 edition of the Weekly Space Hangout, where we were joined by our usual cast of space journalists, including Alan Boyle, Nicole Gugliucci, Ian O’Neill, Jason Major, Emily Lakdawalla and Fraser Cain. We were then joined by two new people, Amy Shira Teitel from Vintage Space and Sawyer Rosenstein from the Talking Space Podcast.

It was an action-packed episode talking about asteroid mining, SpaceX delays, Shuttle retirement, killer black holes, supermassive planets (aka brown dwarfs), Enceladus/Dione flybys, and a new mission to Jupiter.

Want to watch an episode live? We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Thursday at 10:00am PDT, 1:00pm EDT. The live show will appear in Fraser’s Google+ stream, or on our YouTube Channel. You can also watch it live over on Cosmoquest.org.

SpaceX Static Test Fire a Success

It was short but sweet. SpaceX conducted a 2-second static fire test of their Falcon 9 rocket that will send the first COTS flight to the International Space Station. “Woohoo, rocket hold down firing completed and all looks good!!” Tweeted SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk. SpaceX’s Twitter feed said with the successful firing, engineers will now review data as they continue to prepare for the upcoming mission, slated to launch on May 7.

A first attempt was aborted with 30 seconds left in the countdown, due to “overly restrictive redline on second stage engine position.” Engineers recycled all the rocket’s systems and began another countdown.

Fire and smoke erupted just briefly from the base of the rocket, and there seemed to be a bit of confusion on the webcast, as the word “abort” was used, but then there was word of success and the webcast ended abruptly.

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For the static fire test, the nine Merlin engines on the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket were ignited at 20:15 UTC (4:15 p.m. EDT). The test was part of a full dress rehearsal for the SpaceX team. Last week was a final full simulation between NASA and SpaceX for the series of demonstration maneuvers and tests the Dragon capsule will make as it approaches the ISS; then the astronauts on board will capture and berth the cargo capsule to the Harmony module’s Earth-facing docking port.

If the abort problem had occured on the launch day, there would be no second attempt; there is no recycling of the systems for an actual launch. Additionally, the Falcon 9 can only attempt launch every 3 days because of limited propellant on Dragon capsule. SpaceX needs to ensure there is enough propellant on board Dragon for the pre-berthing maneuvers and tests.

If the Falcon 9 launch is delayed by weather or technical problems, another attempt could be made on May 10, but after that they would have to until after the launch of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that will bring three new crew members to the space station. That mission is scheduled for launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on May 14, and would dock two days later.

The launch of the Falcon 9 and Dragon has been delayed from its initial planned flight in February, but with today’s apparently successful test, SpaceX and NASA are hopeful for going forward with next week’s launch.

SpaceX is one of two companies, along with Orbital Sciences, competing for contracts to deliver cargo to low Earth orbit for NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation System program.

The launch is currently set for 13:38 UTC (9:38 a.m. EDT) on Monday.