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SpaceX has just recently made its comeback to the skies with a successful satellite launch but the company might now face delays in its flight schedule due to a dangerous defect found in the Merlin engines of Falcon 9. Government investigators have raised concerns about the safety of crewed missions that were to carry astronauts for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2018, reports WSJ.

The publication has got its hands on the draft of a document being prepared by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). This report is said to detail concerns about persistent cracking in turbine blades of the Falcon 9 rocket. The turbine blades are responsible for driving the turbopumps that continually compress and pump propellant into engines. And the report says that these blades are cracking under pressure from the rapid fuel combustion. This could prove life-threatening for astronauts travelling to the ISS in this capsule ship.

This development comes from government and industry officials aware of GAO’s study of SpaceX’s engines. A representative of the GAO is confirming the existence of a report about the Commercial Crew Program, where SpaceX or Boeing spacecrafts will transport astronauts to and from the space station. The report further also adds that neither of the private players are currently ready for manned spaceflights. They will have to wait at least until 2018 to conduct their missions.

Talking about the said report, Charles Young, Managing Director, GAO (public affairs), says,

We do have work underway and it is due out later this month. 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.

The private space company has already acknowledged the said report and described it as a routine engineering issue. SpaceX has also issued a statement saying it has started working to resolve the turbine blade issues in co-operation with NASA. And their acting director is pretty sure about being able to fix the problem at hand. Speaking on the subject, SpaceX spokesperson John Taylor in an e-mail says,

We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks. However, we are modifying the design to avoid them altogether. This will be part of the final design iteration on Falcon 9. SpaceX has established a plan in partnership with NASA to qualify engines for manned spaceflight.

SpaceX is currently engrossed in modifying its Dragon capsule — it uses to transport supplies to the ISS — for carrying astronauts to the ISS. Once work on the same is complete, it will be called the ‘Dragon Crew’ capsule and will easily be able to transport upto seven crew members using a Falcon 9 Heavy rocket. The company had initially scheduled their crewed mission for 2017 but the unfortunate explosion last year is now setting back the schedule.

There is currently no word on how much time SpaceX will require to upgrade its Merlin engines. The company will most likely need to swap out the smaller turbopumps with larger ones, to provide gases more room to escape during combustion. The report, however, adds that this development could further push back the scheduled date for crewed missions. But, can SpaceX afford any more delay to their missions?

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