SpaceX revealed today that the failure on February 15th of the 1st stage of the Falcon 9 rocket to land successfully first appeared during liftoff.
During a NASA press conference March 1 about the upcoming Crew-2 commercial crew flight, Benji Reed, senior director for human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said that while the booster used on that Feb. 15 launch was making its sixth flight, some components on it were “life leaders” that had flown more often than any other in the Falcon 9 fleet. That included “boots,” or covers around parts of the Merlin engines in the first stage. “This was the highest count number of flights that this particular boot design had seen,” he said.
However, one of those boots had a “little bit of a hole” that allowed hot gas to get into parts of the engine during flight, he said. “A little bit of hot gas got to where it’s not supposed to be, and it caused that engine to shut down,” he said. Reed didn’t mention at what point in the launch the engine shut down, but he suggested it took place during ascent.
…The shutdown of the engine, though, kept the first stage from landing. “When that booster came to return home, because of the problem with that particular engine, we didn’t have enough thrust to get back to where we needed to be, and didn’t land where we wanted to be,” he said.
These facts help explain why SpaceX paused all its subsequent flights. An issue during liftoff is more serious than one that occurs during the return to Earth, as it suggests a problem that could impact future launches and the ability of the rocket to deliver its payload, its primary task.
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