New SpaceX Falcon 9 Problems: Cracks in Turbopump Turbine Blades

Falcon 9 lifts off. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

There have been more problems uncovered with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster.

Congressional investigators are raising new safety concerns about Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s plans for future manned launches, citing persistent cracking of vital propulsion-system components, according to government and industry officials familiar with the details.

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….

Industry officials have known about problems with cracked blades on Falcon 9 versions for many months or even years. But cracks continued to be found during tests as recently as September 2016, Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, confirmed in an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier this week….

Mr. Lightfoot said “we’re talking to [SpaceX] about turbo machinery,” adding that he thinks “we know how to fix them.” In the interview, Mr. Lightfoot said he didn’t know if the solution would require a potentially time-consuming switch to bigger turbopumps.

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