SpaceX is working hard to understand what went wrong with a Falcon-9 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., during a Sept. 1 launch dress rehearsal with the booster at Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40), which resulted in an explosion during fueling and the total loss of both their rocket and their customer’s payload, the AMOS-6 satellite.
In the time since, SpaceX has been working with several organizations to figure it out, including NASA, the FAA, and the U.S. Air Force, but as of yet still have not determined the root cause. However, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company, owned by Elon Musk, is closing in on the cause and has provided the following update on progress being made with the investigation as of Oct. 28, 2016.
“Since the incident, investigators from SpaceX, the FAA, NASA, the US Air Force and industry experts have been working methodically through an extensive fault tree to investigate all plausible causes. As part of this, we have conducted tests at our facility in McGregor, Texas, attempting to replicate as closely as possible the conditions that may have led to the mishap.
The investigation team has made significant progress on the fault tree. Previously, we announced the investigation was focusing on a breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank. The root cause of the breach has not yet been confirmed, but attention has continued to narrow to one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the LOX tank. Through extensive testing in Texas, SpaceX has shown that it can re-create a COPV failure entirely through helium loading conditions. These conditions are mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded.
SpaceX’s efforts are now focused on two areas – finding the exact root cause, and developing improved helium loading conditions that allow SpaceX to reliably load Falcon 9. With the advanced state of the investigation, we also plan to resume stage testing in Texas in the coming days, while continuing to focus on completion of the investigation. This is an important milestone on the path to returning to flight.
Pending the results of the investigation, we continue to work towards returning to flight before the end of the year. Our launch sites at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, remain on track to be operational in this timeframe.”
SpaceX remains confident that the accident was related to flight preparation, rather than a vehicle issue or engineering design issue, which is why they are so confident in returning Falcon-9 to flight in such a short amount of time. The last time they suffered a Falcon-9 accident, on June 28, 2015, they lost a mission for NASA to resupply crew on the International Space Station (Dragon mission CRS-7), and it took them six months to return to flight.
As outlined in a previous story on AmericaSpace, after Sept. 1, NASA’s bet on their Commercial Crew Program 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, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and SpaceX can recover, something that will take not days or weeks, but months to determine.
As for SpaceX and their ambitious goal of returning to flight by end of the year, time will tell. Launch Complex-40 took serious damage from the explosion, and Space Florida recently requested $5 million in funds from the Florida Department of Transportation for help with “infrastructure improvements” on KSC pad 39A for SpaceX, who currently has a 20-year lease for the historic launch pad since December 2014.