Engine failure for SpaceX upgraded Merlin engine during static test

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Capitalism in space: An upgraded Block 5 Merlin engine, undergoing static fire testing at SpaceX’s Texas test facility, experienced what the company is calling “an anomaly.”

The current generation of engines, known as Block IV, have not been impacted by the failure and will continue to fly payloads for SpaceX customers, meaning the incident will not affect this or next year’s launches. That includes next Wednesday’s planned launch of a secretive payload for Northrop Grumman from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A.

“We are now conducting a thorough and fully transparent investigation of the root cause,” SpaceX told FLORIDA TODAY. “SpaceX is committed to our current manifest and we do not expect this to have any impact on our launch cadence.” A company spokesperson said the anomaly occurred when liquid oxygen was being loaded into the engine during an operation known as a “LOX drop.” The tests are designed to root out any cracks or leaks in the engines.



  • mkent

    This should not affect their current satellite or cargo manifest. All of those missions can use block 3 or block 4 Falcons. It will, however, affect their Commercial Crew manifest. NASA is requiring block 5 engines for those flights.

  • mkent: Good point. I had forgotten the NASA requirement for Block 5 on the crew launches. SLS people are probably celebrating this engine failure, as it could cause a delay in that first Dragon manned mission and thus reduce the embarrassment for SLS/Orion.

  • Anthony Domanico


    Why are they requiring block 5 engines for Commercial Crew flights? That’s interesting, I hadn’t heard that until now.

  • mkent

    Previous Merlin engines have had issues with cracked blades in the turbomachinery. It has never led to an in-flight engine loss, but NASA is making SpaceX fix the issue before they fly crew.

    I doubt the SLS guys are celebrating much. Even they have to realize that this issue will be resolved long, long, loooong before SLS ever flies.

  • mkent: To put it mildly, I have become very cynical about the management at NASA. It has been my distinct impression that they have purposely imposed extra and unnecessary safety standards on SpaceX and Boeing in order to slow down the development and flights of their commercial crew capsules. (The extra parachute drop tests for Boeing come immediately to mind.)

    So forgive me if I think so little of the SLS management. I honestly believe there are some in the government, at NASA and elsewhere, who would prefer nothing flies than having SLS look bad.

  • LocalFluff

    “This particular engine isn’t reusable anymore”.

    SpaceX’ engines don’t seem to explode while they are firing. It is the cryogenic fueling and tanks that have caused the couple of spectacular mishaps they’ve had. This has to do with the super cooling of the fuel, doesn’t it? In order to improve payload capacity by 10s of percent. But is it necessary to use super cooled fuel for crewed launches? Their step wise design should have versions that maximize crew safety. For sure they will use dedicated cores for crewed launches.

  • wodun

    It could be that there are those in congress, NASA, and industry that are actively trying to impede SpaceX. But it wont work. Delays might impact one or two areas SpaceX is working in but others continue apace. What will happen is that SpaceX will appear to be an overnight success as the delayed programs all hit closer together rather than staggered apart.

    It’s like with their current launches. Last year it looked like they were struggling and that their launch rate wouldn’t be much higher than in past years. But they smashed their previous launch rates.

    A video game analogy might work here looking at build rates and bottlenecks. Bottlenecks force delays but a sustained build rate means your forces stack up behind the bottleneck. Once that bottleneck is gone, they flow through in a massive horde that looks really impressive.

    Efforts to delay SpaceX in the short term might work but in the long term will just end up making SpaceX look better.

  • mkent

    “So forgive me if I think so little of the SLS management. I honestly believe there are some in the government, at NASA and elsewhere, who would prefer nothing flies than having SLS look bad.”

    I think you’re right about that.

    But the SLS folks can only do so much damage. Commercial cargo is up and running, and they can only delay commercial crew so long. Soyuz seats available to NASA are already finite. I expect commercial crew will at worst be flying test missions by the end of next year. Falcon Heavy also appears to finally be getting ready to fly as well. Once those two things happen, SLS will become just an expensive side show.

    I think the real danger comes from another direction. Both Mike Griffin, who was recently nominated to be the assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, and Scott Pace, the executive director of the National Space Council, have said publicly recently that the government needs to own the rockets and intellectual property for space launch. They seem to be rejecting the very idea of commercial launch vehicles.

    Look at the money that the Air Force is putting into the EELV Follow-On development. Despite the fact that the Delta IV Medium and Falcon 9 were developed nearly entirely with commercial funds, and the Atlas V about half so, the Air Force is intending to spend billions to develop their replacements. Even if you discount the New Glenn and BFR as high-risk developments unlikely to succeed, the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle and BE-4 engine are near-term things. There’s no valid reason to throw that much taxpayer money at this problem.

    Something is afoot. Preserving SLS is a part of it but just a part.

  • Edward

    LocalFluff wrote: “SpaceX’ engines don’t seem to explode while they are firing.

    At least the engines don’t explode during flight, but during CRS-1 an engine shut down early, resulting in the loss of the secondary payload.

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