SpaceX concluding investigation into Falcon 9 engine shutdown

An investigation into a problem on the most recent Falcon 9 launch that caused one of the rocket’s engines to shut down is wrapping up with a “most probable cause” of the problem identified, the president of SpaceX said Tuesday.

“We’re just wrapping that up,” Gwynne Shotwell said in response to a question about the investigation after a talk at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon. A briefing about the investigation with Michael Suffredini, NASA’s International Space Station program manager, is planned for later this week. “I think we’ve got a good most probable cause identified” for the shutdown, but declined to give specifics about that cause.

The investigation started after one of the nine engines on the Falcon 9’s first stage malfunctioned about two minutes after liftoff on the evening of October 7. Video of the launch showed debris of some kind coming from the lower stage, although SpaceX said the engine did not explode, but instead shut down and remained intact; the debris was from shields protecting the engines. The failure did not prevent the rocket’s primary payload, a Dragon capsule on the first operational ISS resupply flight, from reaching orbit, but did keep a small secondary payload, an ORBCOMM demonstration satellite, from reaching its desired orbit.

SpaceX had previously planned to launch its next mission, the CRS-2 cargo flight to the ISS, in January, but that date has slipped because of the engine investigation as well as studies of several minor glitches with the Dragon spacecraft during its three-week stay in space. Shotwell said that SpaceX is now planning the next launch in late February or early March. That launch will be the last for the “version 1.0″ model of the Falcon 9; future launches will use the 1.1 variant, which features new Merlin 1D engines.

Shotwell also addressed a recent major achievement for SpaceX, as the company won its first Air Force contracts last week: the DSCOVR satellite will be launched on a Falcon 9 in 2014 and the STP-2 payload on a Falcon Heavy in 2015. The contracts are part of an effort by the military to open up the EELV contract to new entrants, providing competition to United Launch Alliance’s Atlas and Delta vehicles. Shotwell noted that these launches, as well as NASA contracts, cost more that commercial payloads. “They ask for more stuff,” she explained. “They ask for more data, they ask for more design reviews, so the prices aren’t the same.”

The company has grown considerably in just the last few months, with about 3,000 people now employed by the company. Despite this growth, she said the company remains focused. “We have 3,000 folks who know, down to the janitor, what we’re doing in this company and why we’re doing it,” she said. “They all work incredibly hard.”

The company does have its share of growing pains, though. “I’m president of parking,” she joked, noting that to accommodate the growing number of people at their main facility in Hawthorne, California, they lease parking space in a mall and bus people in. That generates some complaints, she said, adding that she also parks there and takes the bus into the office. “I think they’re a little whiny,” she said to laughter. “I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”

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