There is no way to dilute the events of Sept. 1, 2016, into something less than catastrophic, and not just for SpaceX but for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program itself. Because after Thursday, Sept. 1, NASA’s bet on Commercial Crew in general, and in SpaceX in particular, was challenged not just programmatically but technically. What remains to be seen is whether or not, and how fast, the Commercial Crew program (CPP) and SpaceX recover, something that will take not days or weeks, but months to determine.
Regardless of the explosion or its cause on 9/1 (which is not yet known as of this publishing 9/23), that day would still have been a tough news day for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and by extension SpaceX.
On 9/1, the NASA inspector general, Paul Martin, released a report on the current progress of NASA’s two Commercial Crew program contractors in launching crewed flights from American soil. The NASA IG’s report, NASA’S COMMERCIAL CREW PROGRAM: Update On Development And Certification Efforts makes clear that claims made in past presentations by NASA Commercial Crew Program office, in particular those by NASA Special Assistant for Program Analysis Phil McAlister to the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) on several occasions, that its CCP contractors, Boeing and SpaceX, will be launching crews anytime before late 2018 do not hold up under scrutiny.
“While past funding shortfalls have contributed to the delay, technical challenges with the contractors’ spacecraft designs are now driving the schedule slippages. The Commercial Crew Program continues to face multiple challenges that will likely delay the first routine flight carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS until late 2018—more than 3 years after NASA’s original 2015 goal.”
Whether there were indeed funding shortfalls for NASA’s Commercial Space Program depends upon whether one takes the annual White House budget request or congressional authorization law, that is the enacted legislation that actually creates a program of record and determines authorized funding levels for that program, as a basis for program funding. Generally speaking, authorization law is the measure that is usually used in guiding such discussions.
By that measure NASA’s Commercial Crew efforts were underfunded only in 2011–2012 by a combined $98.6 million and not billions.
In any case, where do Boeing and SpaceX stand in completing the milestones of their individual CCtCap contracts according to the NASA Inspector General’s report?
Boeing began with 23 CCtCap milestones in 2014. In the two years since, the number of milestones has increased to 34 due to previous milestones being broken-up, risk reduction, and other efforts. The additional milestones raised Boeing’s total contract by $46M.
“As of June 2016, Boeing had completed 15 of 34 milestones (44%) necessary to achieve certification and was scheduled to receive up to $1.067B (25%) of the total contract value payment.”
SpaceX began with 18 CCtCap milestone in 2014. In the two years since the number of milestones has increased to 21 due to previous milestones being broken-up, risk reduction, and other efforts. The additional milestones did not raise SpaceX’s total contract amount. “As of June 2016, SpaceX had completed 8 of 21 milestones (38%), five less than planned under the original schedule, and received $469M (18%) of the total contract value.” Left unmentioned in the NASA Inspector General’s report is that SpaceX still has two uncompleted CCiCap milestones that were to have been completed by mid–2014.
In short, progress in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is being made, but more slowly than planned or hoped. And more slowly than needed to prevent NASA from having to buy more seats on Soyuz.
All of this stands in contrast to assurances made repeatedly by NASA Commercial Crew Program office that commercial crew would launch by 2017. But it does not come as a surprise. Those closely following commercial crews have heard for some time that claims of commercial crew launch dates in 2017 were optimistic at best. On separate occasions when AmericaSpace contacted NASA regarding rumblings heard of problems in the Commercial Crew Program that would delay any launches, NASA updated AmericaSpace as to the completed milestones of the commercial crew contracts and assured AmericaSpace that information implying launch delays was either inaccurate or ill-informed.
In May 2016 one NASA commercial crew contractor, Boeing, put some shade on the optimism of NASA’s commercial crew launch date pronouncements by revising its estimated launch date to sometime in early 2018. When contacted about this development, Boeing confirmed to AmericaSpace that it had faced technical difficulties regarding its CST–100 Starliner commercial spacecraft that forced the company to move its expected first launch of crew to 2018. By coming clean about delays in launching its CST–100 Starliner, Boeing not only substantiates the findings in the NASA Inspector General’s report but leaves the impression that its management is more fully aware of the CST–100’s performance.
As late as last May, when contacted by AmericaSpace.com regarding rumors of a slippage in its inaugural launch of a crew, SpaceX emphatically maintained that it would make a 2017 launch of crew well ahead of Boeing. The NASA Inspector General’s report makes clear that those claims of just a few months ago were not credible.
Delays in SpaceX’s progress in its commercial crew efforts can in part be measured by continuing critical design review (CDR) changes, or deltas. One reason for those changes is that SpaceX has no employees who have designed or built a crewed spacecraft, save for a couple of former NASA personnel. Another contributing factor to SpaceX’s commercial crew launch date slippages is that it has only a few, perhaps little more than two or three dozen, SpaceX employees working full-time on commercial crew; most of the others are multi-tasked to Cargo Resupply, Red Dragon, and commercial satellite services.
Whatever delays that the NASA Inspector General found for SpaceX in meeting its commercial crew milestones only increased when at 8:07 a.m. Sept. 1, 2016, a Falcon 9 FT–026 exploded, destroying itself, its payload, and the LC–40 launch pad. Elon Musk, the Founder and CTO of SpaceX, released a statement shortly afterwards indicating that the explosion originated with the upper-stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.
It bears reminding that a problem within the Falcon 9 upper-stage was determined as the source of the mishap that caused the loss of SpaceX’s CRS–7 mission. Regardless, SpaceX has had its second catastrophic event in little more than 14 months. That is unprecedented within the last 50 years of U.S. space activities. And not since 1959 has a rocket consumed itself on a U.S. launchpad during a pre-launch ground test.
The Falcon 9 explosion on 9/1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 40 (LC–40) essentially destroyed the launchpad. Densified liquid oxygen, which SpaceX terms “super-chilled,” was being loaded at the time of the explosion in preparation for a static fire test. After the explosion occurred, for reasons that are unclear, densified LOX, which is highly reactive and corrosive, flowed onto LC–40 for over 4.5 minutes. Sources have said that the densified LOX entered into underground tunnels and rooms and eventually led to explosive incidents in those locations. The fire that raged for over 4.5 minutes was so intense that sand around the pad nearest to the fire was turned into glass. By all accounts, LC–40 will have to be completely rebuilt, a task that will take at least several months. Who will pay for the rebuilding of LC–40 will be left up to SpaceX; SpaceFlorida, the entity that leased LC–40 to SpaceX; and NASA.
One operational characteristic of the Falcon 9 is that it has to be fueled with densified LOX, which was developed in the 1990s by engineers at Rockwell International, within 30 minutes of the booster firing its Merlin D engines. Otherwise, the temperature of the liquid oxygen rises to a point that the LOX becomes insufficiently dense to allow for the performance SpaceX desires. After the 9/1 explosion, this characteristic of the Falcon 9 will be getting more attention. Because 30 minutes is too little time to stabilize the fueled Falcon 9 and load the crew, SpaceX has proposed to NASA that the crew be loaded into the Dragon 2 before the launcher is fueled with liquid oxygen.
But as was been pointed-out by former NASA and Air Force personnel to NASA in 2015, loading the crew into the Dragon 2 spacecraft before loading fuel and oxidizer into the Falcon 9’s first and second stages is contrary to launcher safety standards that have been followed for more than 50 years in the United States and world-wide. Historically, and as was the case during the 9/1 SpaceX static fire test, neither the crew nor any other personnel are allowed in or near the launcher during fueling. Only after the launcher is fully fueled and deemed stabilized are a small number people, who are considered essential, allowed to get near the rocket. Astronauts are loaded last on a launcher to minimize risk of loss of life to the crew and those essential personnel needed to secure them. It is little wonder then that the issue of loading densified LOX after the crew has been a serious concern with former NASA and Air Force personnel. After the 9/1 accident, those concerns will only be heightened. Or, as one sources put it, “The SpaceX explosion on the pad was a ‘Hindenburg’ moment for its proposal to load the crew before fueling.”
Some might speculate that the Dragon 2’s pad abort capability would certainly have kept the crew safe. It should go without saying that crew safety systems are not meant to be a backup to system anomalies that can be otherwise mitigated or even removed through design revisions. And there are no certainties to the efficacy of crew safety systems in a given scenario if test data is not available. Which begs the question: Would Dragon 2’s crew safety systems, specifically its pad abort system, have detected the 9/1 incident sufficiently early to activate and then whisk the crew to safety? In short, nobody really knows but many have imagined they know. Given SpaceX’s proposed alternative plan for loading a crew before fueling the Falcon 9 booster, concerns are now arising that there be a pad abort test mimicking the type of incident that occurred on 9/1. Others now speculate that, regardless of whether SpaceX is allowed on crewed flights to fuel the Falcon 9 after a crew has been secured, SpaceX will need to look closely at some of its booster design choices that diverge from past practices and pose challenges to crew safety.
SpaceX is a young rocket company that has quickly grown from its founding in 2002 to launching the Falcon 9 in 2010 to servicing ISS in 2012. That is something of which SpaceX and NASA, the agency that has helped the company with billions in funding, can be justifiably proud. But, as mentioned in the opening of this article, it will take months to determine what caused the Falcon 9 carrying Amos–6 to explode on LC–40 as well as to rebuild the launchpad. That may seem like an eternity and the required patience to match it. In today’s world, that sort of patience is difficult. But in long-term efforts like space exploration, it is absolutely necessary. The conquest of space is neither easy nor fast. But as long as NASA and its commercial space contractors remain focused on again launching Americans from U.S. soil, success will follow.
- NASA’s Commercial Crew Program: Update on Development and Certification Efforts, page 3 ↩
- NASA’s Commercial Crew Program: Update on Development and Certification Efforts, page 9–10 ↩
- NASA’s Commercial Crew Program: Update on Development and Certification Efforts, page 13 ↩
- USTPO: Liquid Propellant Densification ↩