As SpaceX is making the final touches on launchpad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in advance of its upcoming inaugural flight from that historic venue, a Washington Post article centers on blade cracks in the Falcon 9 rocket’s turbo-pumps. The piece, written by Andy Pasztor goes under the scary headline Congressional Investigators Warn of SpaceX Rocket Defects and casts further doubts on the company’s schedule for NASA’s Commercial Crew by citing unnamed sources and the draft version of a yet to be released GAO report. As one might expect, the story was picked up and cited again and again in global media.
While having its basis in fact, the turbo-pump cracking is hardly new news, having been cited in this September 2016 NASA OIG report which addressed mounting schedule delays for both SpaceX and Boeing. What may not receive nearly as much coverage however, is something mentioned in this Reuters interview with SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell by Irene Klotz. There are actually two crack-related issues, but the more serious of the pair has already been rectified, with design changes implemented last summer.
“To fix the more serious cracking issue, the company devised a software fix and then redesigned the turbine wheel, Shotwell said. The first of the redesigned turbine wheels flew in July 2016.
A second set of cracks in welds and shrouds are not a concern for flight, but NASA and the Air Force have asked for a redesign, Shotwell said.”
Regarding the turbine cracks, another quote from Shotwell ilustrates once again just how different SpaceX’s view can sometimes be:
“For us, the concern was not the cracks, but do they grow over time? Would these cracks cause a flight failure?” Shotwell said. “I think NASA is used to engines that aren’t quite as robust, so they just don’t want any cracks at all in the turbo machinery.”