CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – I feel like I’ve been watching Starhopper on repeat for weeks now. We’ve got to get another SpaceX launch in, but when is the next one?
SpaceX is in a little bit of a lull right now and it’s actually it’s not really a bad thing for SpaceX. They’re actually in the unusual situation where they are ready before their customers are actually ready with their payloads. Still on track for 2019 we’ve got a couple of communication satellites that are still going to launch, we’ve got another resupply mission to the International Space Station that’s scheduled for December, we’ve got a whole bunch of Starship and Super Heavy developments that are happening as well as potential Starship flights as early as next month and then we also have the Crew Dragon that they’re still trying to fit in for this year.
Originally SpaceX was going to launch the Crew Dragon capsule with crew sometime in the July 2019 timeframe but before they could do that there’s an abort test that they have to do so they can demonstrate that they can keep the astronauts safe in case there was an anomaly. They’ve already done a pad abort test, that was back in May 2015, that’s if there’s an anomaly on the launch pad before the rocket has even lifted off. Everything for that went just fine. The abort test that they still have to do is their in-flight abort test. That’s where they launch the rocket, they take it to the maximum dynamic pressure area, or max-Q, and then do an in-flight abort where they separate the capsule and pull it away from the Falcon 9 booster to simulate some sort of anomaly in the middle of flight to see if they can pull the astronauts safely away and get them back to the ground.
Back in the spring of 2019 as they were getting prepared for that in-flight abort test they were doing some ground testing on the Crew Dragon capsule which was the same Crew Dragon capsule that flew on DM-1 or Demo Mission 1 back in March. They were going to reuse this capsule for another flight test. What they were doing with that ground test was testing their Draco thrusters and then the much larger Super Draco engines. Everything with the Dragon Thrusters went just fine but it was when the Super Draco engines were about to ignite that suddenly – boom!
This is a major anomaly and obviously if this had happened with astronauts on board they would not have survived so it’s important that SpaceX and NASA figure out exactly what went wrong and they think they have.
What NASA and SpaceX found was that a little bit of liquid oxidizer got into the helium lines that pressurize the whole system and actually push the oxidizer and the fuel into the combustion chamber. The way that happens is that they had a check valve in place that’s not supposed to allow liquid oxidizer to go back into the helium lines, but a little bit of that liquid oxidizer did get into the helium lines. The liquid oxidizer didn’t really do any damage just sitting there but when the helium system pressurized it forces that liquid oxidizer back through the check valve at super high speeds and basically destroyed the whole thing. That check valve is made of titanium and titanium actually caught fire and fire near hypergolic chemicals not so good!
The good news here is that they’ve identified what the problem is and they have a path forward where they can actually fix it and move on. Instead of those check valves, SpaceX is going to use burst discs. You might be wondering, why didn’t SpaceX use burst discs in the first place? Part of that issue comes down to reusability. Burst discs are not reusable and SpaceX obviously wants to reuse as much as they can, but a lot of it also comes down to the way they test all their components before launch.
Since burst discs are not reusable and they’re one-time use only, SpaceX can’t test them ahead of time. They put them in and they have to work! Burst disks are pretty reliable in general so I Don’t think that’s gonna be too much of an issue for them, but if it solves the problem of the capsule going boom, I’m all for it!! Ultimately, we have to keep the astronauts safe. Reusability is great but those astronauts have to be safe or else the funding and the support behind the program just isn’t going to be there.
If SpaceX wants an opportunity to fly the Crew Dragon capsule with crew before the end of the year they’re going to have to get that in-flight abort test in pretty soon. SpaceX is CEO Gwynne Shotwell has said that they’re still targeting the end of the year for Crew Dragon crewed flight so hopefully we should see that in-flight abort test coming up within the next month.
In the meantime though, SpaceX still has a ton of stuff going on before the end of the year. We’ve got Starship developments happening, we’ve got a potential Starship launch as early as next month and potentially up to four Starlink satellite launches before the end of the year with 60 Starlink satellites per launch – that’s crazy!
In addition to Crew Dragon, SpaceX is also doing a ton of development on their Starship prototype. They’ve already started filing permits over in Texas so they can do launches there and over at the Florida site they’ve already started outfitting Launch Complex 39A to get ready for Starship flights as early as next month. This is going to be crazy! The big updates are going to be Starship updates coming on September 28th when Elon Musk is planning to update the public with everything that’s been going on for Starship. Don’t be discouraged we’ve got a lot more to go for SpaceX and next year is pretty jam-packed as well with roughly 24 Starlink launches in addition to customer launches that are on track for 2020. It’s going to be a crazy year I cannot wait!