Thursday, February 2, 2017

Blade Runner

A SpaceX Merlin 1D engine on display at the company's Hawthorne, California headquarters. Image source: SpaceX.

Andy Pasztor of The Wall Street Journal reports that the draft of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit raises safety concerns about SpaceX Falcon 9 turbine blades.

If you encounter the Journal's pay wall, use Google to search the article title, “Congressional Investigators Warn of SpaceX Rocket Defects”. For some reason this bypasses the pay wall.

According to the article:

The Government Accountability Office’s preliminary findings reveal a pattern of problems with turbine blades that pump fuel into rocket engines, these officials said. The final GAO report, scheduled to be released in coming weeks, is slated to be the first public identification of one of the most serious defects affecting Falcon 9 rockets.

The crack-prone parts are considered a potentially major threat to rocket safety, the industry officials said, and may require redesign of what are commonly called the Falcon 9’s turbopumps. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, they said, has warned SpaceX that such cracks pose an unacceptable risk for manned flights.

The article quotes acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot as saying “we know how to fix them.”

With the exception of the Space Shuttle, little data exist on turbine blade failures because most rockets are expendable, i.e. they fall in the ocean and are not recovered. For all we know, it may be a common phenomenon on other engines too, just never fully observed.

Turbine blades cracked on the Space Shuttle Main Engines as well. We only know that because the orbiter returned from flight.

Because the report is only a draft, it is by no means a final or authoritative report. Audit drafts frequently undergo revision and review, not only to correct errors but also to allow the auditee to respond.

My question is who leaked the draft to Mr. Pasztor, and why.

Auditors are quite scrupulous about secrecy, so it seems to me the leak would have come from NASA, the audited agency.

Not everyone in the agency is enamored with NewSpace.

With the change in administrations, a transition team representing the Trump administration is reviewing agency operations. It's possible someone on that team reviewed the draft report and leaked it.

Chris Shank, a protégé former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, headed the “landing team” that began the transition. According to Ars Technica journalist Eric Berger:

With Shank as their leader, several other members of the initial landing team also had connections to Griffin, who favors a model in which NASA develops and builds its own rocket and spacecraft, rather than handing over the reins to commercial companies such as SpaceX or Blue Origin.

It was around that time that SpaceX founder Elon Musk agreed to join President Trump's business advisory team. Although they don't share many political philosophies, Musk has met with Trump at least two times since then.

Musk has many other interests to pursue with Trump, such as electric cars and solar homes, so his participation on Trump's advisory board shouldn't be viewed as strictly space parochial interests.

But if someone on the transition team from the OldSpace community is trying to torpedo SpaceX in the commercial crew competition, Musk is in a position where he can appeal to the White House for support.

UPDATE February 2, 2017 9:15 PM EST — Elon Musk posted this tonight on Twitter.

UPDATE February 3, 2017 9:15 AM ESTSpace journalist Irene Klotz at Reuters reports that SpaceX already has a fix in the pipeline for the blade cracks.

In an email to Reuters, SpaceX said it has “qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks. However, we are modifying the design to avoid them altogether,” said spokesman John Taylor.

Reporter Loren Grush at The Verge reports she confirmed the existence of the audit.

A representative for GAO confirmed that the agency is working on a report about the Commercial Crew Program, where SpaceX and Boeing are developing vehicles to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. “We do have work underway and it is due out later this month,” Charles Young, the managing director of GAO’s public affairs, tells The Verge. “I can’t comment on the contents of the report until it is issued. It is still in draft form and we have not provided copies to any reporters.”

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