So, crossing your finger really doesn’t work, though I guess we should do some double-blind trials just to make sure.
The launch of SpaceX‘s Falcon 9/Dragon flight to the ISS went all the way to ignition early this morning, but engine five had abnormally high chamber pressure readings on lighting, requiring a computerized abort. SpaceX confirmed that this was not the result of a sensor malfunction nor any computer glitch. The fuel valve was apparently operating normally, so we’re still waiting to find out exactly what went wrong.
SpaceX noted that while a failure of two engines during flight would not cause a failure, all nine engines have to be operational for a successful liftoff. Pressure problems have occurred in testing and during the first demonstration flight as well, though in the first test the pressure was off by a narrower margin, suggesting a different fault.
The launch is rescheduled for either May 22nd at 3:44 a.m. or May 23rd 3:22 a.m. E.S.T. SpaceX says that even if the malfunction cannot be resolved on the pad, a rollback to the hangar will not require a further delay. If necessary, they can simply replace engine five, but they are still hoping to repair the engine rather than replace it.
In response to a question about the public relations hit that the private space industry would take with this failure, the SpaceX representative noted that it was not a failure – the launch was aborted with cause – and that a real failure would have been to launch and lose the vehicle. However, it has to be noted that this is only the latest in a string of delays since the first demonstration in 2010, and the fact that it is an engine issue makes it especially disheartening.
On the other hand, the confidence that they will be able to resolve the issue and be ready in a few days is a plus. If, however, it requires an engine replacement, we have to wonder about how ready private industry is to fulfill NASA’s requirements. We’ve already seen a delay of more than a year on this demonstration, and what does it say that the engines aren’t ready? As we saw with Challenger’s O-Ring and Columbia’s foam, there’s a lot that can go wrong even after you get the engines right.