SpaceX moves a step closer to Return To Flight

SpaceX has completed the first static fire test of their enhanced Falcon 9 rocket as they move closer to return to flight.  The upgraded rocket (name not yet known) uses Full Thrust Merlin 1D engines, previous flights the engines had only been run at 85% thrust.

This upgrade which was already in the works before the June accident that has grounded the Falcon 9 will allow larger payloads to be launched and still allow the company to attempt to land the first stage.

See video below of the test at SpaceX’s Mcgregor, Texas test site.

When will Falcon 9 Return to Flight

It has been 9 weeks since the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch failure, and with the exception of one update from Elon Musk on 20th July we have not heard anything further on the return to flight of the Falcon 9.

The initial investigation found that a strut in the second stage oxygen tank failed at 1/5 the load it was designed to withstand resulting in the helium bottle used to pressurize the tank dislodging and catastrophically damaging the tank, this lead to the explosion and failure of the mission.  During the announcement into the failure it became clear that this part had not been tested internally by SpaceX before the accident, subsequent tests showed that other samples of the strut also failed below their designed limits.

It became clear very quickly after the accident that Dragon had survived the initial explosion and was seen flying away from the exploding rocket.  This was confirmed by Elon and they continued to receive telemetry from Dragon until if dropped beyond the horizon.  Unfortunately the vehicle was lost when it crashed into the ocean.

During the initial report Elon announced several changes that would be coming for future flights which are expected to resume in September.

  1. SpaceX will no longer use these particular structs within the vehicle – It is our understanding that this part is useful throughout the vehicle so this change itself will be quite significant, as they already have cores built we also don’t know how much work it will be to modify those.
  2. SpaceX will implement additional hardware quality audits throughout the vehicle – This will add additional time to the build process and therefore additional cost, some of which may be passed on to customers, although Elon indicated that may not be the case.
  3. SpaceX will update the Dragon software to allow deployment on chutes in case of future failures – Elon indicated that this this was just a software change, if so that would be a relatively easy change as deployment is already build in for return.

So the question now is when will the flights resume and what will be the first payload to be flown?

Update: We have seen several comments that indicate that RTF could be November or even end of year.  With no news from SpaceX it is hard to dispute or verify these statements.  For now we are sticking with a September RTF pending further official information from SpaceX.

Update 8/31: It would appear from comments by SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell that RTF is still a couple of months away (see tweets below)

Shotwell also announced that RTF will also be the first flight of the more powerful Merlin engines

Update 9/1: Further news today regarding SpaceX missions later this year, the CRS-8 mission to ISS is now scheduled to fly 9/15 according to the post below. The mission will still carry the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module in the trunk.

SpaceX releases preliminary data on 6/28 Falcon 9 failure

More than three weeks ago during the launch of the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station the Falcon 9 second stage suffered an anomaly that resulted in the lost of the spacecraft and its payloads.

Today Elon Musk announced that the preliminary investigation into the accident indicates that a strut inside the Liquid Oxygen (LOX) tank on the 2nd stage failed causing the liquid helium bottle to dislodge and hit the top of the LOX tank causing the explosion.  Elon stressed multiple times during the call that this is a preliminary result so far.

 

SpaceX have tested 1000s of the struts since the accident and have found a number of failures below rated value, including one that failed below 2,000 lbs.

During the call Elon admitted that SpaceX did not perform Quality Control on the strut that failed and instead relied in the part meeting the specification as provided by the supplier.  They will be revising their processes to ensure all parts of the rocket are fully QCed for future flights.  While this will increase SpaceX costs during construction of the rocket they didn’t expect it to have much if any of an impact on the cost of the rocket.

Elon also announced that Dragon V1 didn’t have the ability to deploy the chutes in case of an emergency during ascent, the next flight will have the ability should it be needed which would have most likely have resulted in pressurized cargo being saved. They expect to delay flights until September but at present don’t know who will be the first flight manifest will most likely change.  Again because this is preliminary so may change should another cause become obvious.

Elon also announced that due to the investigation the flight of Falcon Heavy will most likely be delayed until April 2016.  

Elon also admitted that most of the people who now work for SpaceX have never seen a failure due to all the successful launches in the last seven years.  This had caused most of them to become complacent about the difficulty of launching rockets.  They have now learned the hard way just what is involved. 

Is No News Good News for the #SpaceX accident

On the 5th July Elon Tweeted the following

However it is now 11 days later and we still haven’t heard any news on what caused the 28th June explosion that doomed the CRS-7 mission to the International Space Station.

Does the lack of news mean that they found something that they cannot explain or worse still found something that involved another party and need to handle the issue careful?

At this time it is difficult to say what is happening, all we know or certain is that NASA and the FAA are closely monitoring the investigation and I am sure we will hear eventually what they found and what needs to be done to address it.

In the meantime we will continue to speculate on what it could have been as is human nature and then see how close or far from the truth we were.

Was the SpaceX accident due to Sabotage?

As we continue to wait for information from SpaceX on the cause of the Jun 28th accident that resulted in the loss of the CRS-7 mission a number of people have asked this question.

Today we want to look at this scenario and see just how unlikely it is.

It is no secret that SpaceX have made waves in the space launch industry with there pricing and until this flight the success of the Falcon 9 rocket. To start our investigation we start with SpaceX themselves.

SpaceX
If someone internally was able to sabotage the vehicle this would present some major issues for SpaceX including.

1) During the US Air Force certification Security would have been discussed due to the nature of some of the payloads. If SpaceX were not able to stop an employee from sabotaging the rocket that would impact any chances of getting USAF launches in the future.

2) Security is also important to Commercial customers as they don’t want anyone just walking into the assembly building and being able to mess with their payload.

3) If SpaceX’s processes are so lack that someone was left alone long enough with the rocket to be able to sabotage it they again would have some difficult questions to answer from customers.

Boeing
The next suspect that has been mentioned several times is Boeing, while they are competitors both in space launch with United Launch Alliance and Commercial Crew there is no real benefits to Boeing in destroying SpaceX at this point.

1) Boeing need the International Docking Adapter that was destroyed in the accident in order to dock their CST-100 spacecraft to the station. At present Dragon is the only vehicle capable of transporting it.

2) If sabotage was proven against Boeing it would severely damage their reputation within the market place both with NASA and Commercially and while they have a proven success record they would be remember more for this than the successes.

Other Commercial Cargo/Crew competitors
There is no doubt that this accident came at a very inconvenient time for SpaceX with the award of the CRS-2 contracts coming in September. And this could benefit some of the other players however just as with Boeing any provable sabotage would have a negative impact on their chances.

Russia
Russia have had their own launch issues recently with the Proton launch issues, the Progress failure earlier this year. If they were not having all of these reliability issues they would certainly benefit from SpaceX failing or becoming more expensive as a result of the accident. However it seems very unlikely that Russia would waste the resources needed to convince someone at SpaceX to sabotage the rocket or be able to sneak someone into place to be able to do so.

Arianespace/European Space Agency
It is no secret that some European leaders do not like SpaceX due to the disruption they have caused. However as with the other competitors it is very unlikely that they would bother waste resources to sabotage SpaceX, again any provable sabotage would damage there reputation.

China
We can’t dismiss China at this point, they have shown they are capable of achieving manned spaceflight joining only a small group of nations. And while they would probably not care what others think if provable sabotage was proven it would still cause political issues longer term and there doesn’t seem to be any benefit to China.

Summary
So in summary the chances of sabotage are very small as no-one really would benefit from it and it would force SpaceX to face some serious questions about their processes/security.

Leading theories for SpaceX CRS-7 mishap

2015-06-28_102410It has been two days since the Falcon 9 carrying the CRS-7 Dragon exploded and there are currently two leading THEORIES on what happened.

As we have yet to hear an official reason from SpaceX these are just PURE SPECULATION at this point.

1) The International Docking Adapter or a part of it came lose during the flight and impacted with the top of the 2nd Stage. This caused damage to the 2nd stage that resulted in the explosion.

2) The Liquid Oxygen tank ruptured causing the explosion, either due to a manufacturing issue or because of a leak in the Helium Pressure system which caused too much pressure to build in the tank.

At this point it is impossible to say if these are even close to the truth and until we hear officially from SpaceX the speculation will continue to grow.

Now comes SpaceX’s true test

This morning SpaceX suffered the first failure of their Falcon 9 rocket as it explode two minutes into the CRS-7 mission. Initial data from Elon Musk indicates that an over-pressure event happened on the second stage.

This was the first time since the third flight of Falcon 1 that SpaceX has suffered a mission ending failure, they have had minor issues during launch including loss of engine (this caused a secondary payload to be lost but primary mission was successful) and an issue with Dragon after deployment (which was later resolved).

Since that Falcon 1 failure in August 2008 SpaceX have launched 20 rockets include 18 Falcon 9 vehicles all reaching orbit successfully, quite an achievement for a new launch provider.

The true test of what SpaceX are made of happens now as they review the data from the failure today, what changes they need to make to address the issue, how open they are about the failure and how quickly they turn this around and start launching rockets again. One advantage that SpaceX have over other people as stated by COO Gwynne Shotwell is the fact that they make most of the parts of the rockets so don’t have to seek data from other parties.

While it is sad that this happened on a NASA International Space Station (ISS) launch it is also a blessing in some respects as we are more likely to hear more information about the failure than if it had been for a commercial customer’s launch.

Over the coming days SpaceX will review thousands of pieces of data and any debris that the teams were able to recover to fully determine what happened.

Initial indications show that the Dragon capsule actually survived the initial explosion of the rocket and continued to transmit data afterwards, most likely stopping when it impacted the ocean.  One change that we hope for future flights of Cargo Dragon (just in case) is a way for Mission Control to be able to deploy the chutes during an non-nominal event, this potentially could have allowed Dragon to splashdown safely in the ocean just as a Crewed Vehicle is designed to.

UPDATE – Elon this morning tweeted an update on the investigation

SpaceX loses CRS-7 mission to ISS

CRS7-logoThis morning SpaceX launched their latest mission to the International Space Station, unfortunately during the first stage flight the rocket exploded causing lost of Falcon, Dragon and the cargo it was carrying

 

Among the cargo that Dragon was carrying was the first of two International Docking Adapters for the station which will be used by Boeing and SpaceX to dock their crewed vehicles in the future.  They were also flying the Meteor experiment which was originally launched on the fated Orb-3 mission last year but lost when the rocket exploded.  For further details of the cargo manifest check out this pdf file.

Below are screen grabs of the launch captured from the Webcast

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The Re-usable Rocket Era approaches

While SpaceX have yet to successfully land a Falcon 9 first stage it appears their vision has spurred the industry to react with both United Launch Alliance (ULA) and now Airbus Aerospace announcing plans to include re-usable components in future rocket designs.

The three companies have quite different plans to achieve the re-use.

Falcon 9 landing on ASDS
Falcon 9 attempting landing on ASDS

SpaceX – Plan to land the complete first stage initially on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) which is placed about 400 miles off the Florida coast during liftoff. Eventually they would like to return the stage to landing pads located near the original launch pad.

recovery-1024x639
Vulcan Re-usable Plan

ULA – Their new Vulcan rocket will allow the Engines to be re-used. Once the first stage has completed its work the engines will be detached, an inflatable heat shield will protect them during re-entry and then an Parafoil will be used to slow the descending engines so that a helicopter can capture them while still in the air.

Screen-Shot-2015-06-05-at-11.43.43-AM-879x485
Airbus Re-use module

Airbus – They plan to have a detachable module too which contains the engines and main avionics, unlike the ULA module this will be a winged module that will return to Earth and land like a plane.

Only time will tell how successful these plans are however SpaceX has two big advantages at present.

First they are already testing their design and have already demonstrated that they can return the full first stage to the ASDS, they just haven’t been successful at landing it yet. The next attempt will be later this month during the CRS-7 launch.  ULA will not be flying the Vulcan rocket until at least 2019 and the Ariane 6 rocket will not include the re-usable module initially.

Second once they have successfully landed a first stage they will be able to determine just how quickly it could be re-used.  The other two plans will require that the rest of the first stage be constructed each time before the engines can be attached.

 

SpaceX completes Dragon 2 pad abort test

SpaceX completed another CCiCap milestone today with the successful Launchpad Abort Test of there Dragon 2 capsule. The capsules 8 SuperDraco engines propelled the vehicle away from the launchpad to a splashdown in the Atlantic ocean.

The purpose of the test was to verify the design of the launch escape system a critical element for manned space flight.  The capsule carried 270 different sensors to allow NASA and SpaceX to determine the loads on the crew members during the test and many other pieces of information.  They also had a test dummy in one of the seats and weights to simulate a fully crewed vehicle. Once the capsule has been retrieved from the ocean it will be inspected and prepared for the next test which is an in-flight abort test at Max-Q to verify they can escape then if needed.

Most current launch abort systems use a tower attached to the top of the capsule which is then ejected during the launch, SpaceX has opted to build the system into the actual capsule allowing them to provide escape scenarios throughout the flight.

The test came the day after the 54th anniversary of the Alan Shepherd’s Freedom 7 Mercury flight, the SuperDraco engines produced more thrust during the test than the engines on the Freedom 7 rocket.

Below are screenshots of the abort test

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