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NASA delays commercial crew mission to study Falcon 9 engine issue

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WASHINGTON — NASA is delaying the launch of the first operational SpaceX commercial crew mission to the first half of November to provide more time to review a problem during a recent Falcon 9 launch attempt.

NASA announced Oct. 10 the Crew-1 mission, which was scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 in the early morning hours of Oct. 31 from the Kennedy Space Center, will now launch no earlier than early to mid-November.

The delay, the agency said, will provide more time for SpaceX “to complete hardware testing and data reviews as the company evaluates off-nominal behavior of Falcon 9 first stage engine gas generators observed during a recent non-NASA mission launch attempt.” NASA did not identify the specific launch attempt in question, but an Oct. 2 launch of a Falcon 9 carrying a GPS 3 satellite was scrubbed just two seconds before liftoff because of SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk later described as an “unexpected pressure rise in the turbomachinery gas generator.”

“With the high cadence of missions SpaceX performs, it really gives us incredible insight into this commercial system and helps us make informed decisions about the status of our missions,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in the agency statement. She said an investigation into the problem is ongoing “and we should be a lot smarter within the coming week.”

Both the Crew-1 and the GPS 3 missions are using new Falcon 9 first stages that have not previously launched. After the GPS 3 scrub, SpaceX successfully launched another Falcon 9 Oct. 6 carrying 60 Starlink satellites using a booster making its third flight. SpaceX has yet to reschedule the GPS 3 launch.

NASA said the issue with the Crew-1 mission will not delay another Falcon 9 launch, of the Sentinel-6

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DARPA Awards $14 Million To Develop A Nuclear Rocket Engine

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Gryphon Technologies $14 million to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion system for the U.S. military. Part of DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, the High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system will be used to enable the military to carry out missions in cislunar space, meaning the area between the Earth and the orbit of the moon.

“A successfully demonstrated NTP system will provide a leap ahead in space-propulsion capability, allowing agile and rapid transit over vast distances as compared to present propulsion approaches,” Tabitha Dodson, Gryphon’s chief engineer on the support team and a national expert in NTP systems, said in a statement.

The militarization of space, this time largely involving the United States and China, has been in the news in recent years in a way that it hasn’t since the decades-old Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviets. The idea of using Nuclear Thermal Propulsion to power spacecraft is that a nuclear reactor utilized to heat a propellant like hydrogen to extreme temperatures, prior to expelling it via a nozzle in order to create thrust, could be significantly more efficient than current chemical rockets. It would also have a thrust-to-weight ratio that is reportedly 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion.

The concept of using nuclear reactors in space is not new, but this effort from DARPA shows just how seriously it is now being taken here in 2020.

“Gryphon is committed to providing high-end technical solutions to our nation’s most critical national security challenges,” said P.J. Braden, CEO of Gryphon, in a statement. “We are proud to support DRACO and the development and demonstration of NTP, a significant technological advancement in efforts to achieve cislunar space awareness.”

No timeline has been