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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SpaceX launches TurkmenAlem52E/MonacoSat satellite

2015-04-27-130427-350x300SpaceX has completed their 5th launch of the year with the delivery of the TurkmenAlem52E/MonacoSat satellite to orbit.

The launch was delayed several weeks to allow SpaceX time to investigate issues they found with Helium bottles back at the factory and to allow the CRS-6 mission to take off on time.  With this launch SpaceX once again broke there turn-around record with just 13 days between launches.

Due to the weight of the satellite and it’s destination orbit SpaceX flew the Falcon 9 without the landing hardware to lower the weight of the vehicle.  The next launch that will attempt a landing will be the CRS-7 mission in June.

This is the first satellite launched for Turkmenistan.

Here is a video of the launch

Dragon Berthed to ISS

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft successfully arrived at the International Space Station this morning completing a two day journey which started with the picture perfect launch on Tuesday.

ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti controlled the ISS robotic arm and captured of Dragon at 6:55 am EDT.

Mission control then manoveured the spacecraft to the Berthing which was completed at 9:29 am EDT, leak checks will now be performed before opening on the hatch tomorrow.

Below are images of the capture and berthing from NASA TV.

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SpaceX Landing Attempt

For the second time SpaceX attempted to land a Falcon 9 first stage on the Autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) named “Just Read the Instructions”.

For this attempt the rocket got very close but didn’t survive the attempt, the first time the rocket tipped over just before landing causing it to fall over the side. According to early information from Elon Musk today the second attempt was closer, it is believed the rocket did actually land but then tipped over. We will know more once the ASDS arrives back in port.

Today I wanted to look closer at what SpaceX has already achieved with these attempts and previous soft landings and what this means for the future attempts back to land.

Lets consider what the first stage was doing just minutes before it attempted to land. From liftoff the 141 foot tall stage accelerated to 3.4 kilometers per second before detaching from the second stage. It then turned around, and fired its engines to return back to the ASDS, after the boost back it then had to turn around again for re-entry through the atmosphere. During the re-entry the engines are fired again to control the speed of descent to minimize heating. The legs and fins were then deployed and the engines fired again to bring it down towards the ASDS.

Precision Landing – While the rockets didn’t survive either attempt, the fact that they were that close to the ASDS in itself is a big achievement.

Learning lessons – With each attempt they are getting more and more data to help them perfect the process. They will analyze the data from this attempt and from that see what changes are needed before trying again.

Moving closer to Dragon 2 landings – The initial version of Dragon 2 will be using parachute landings on water the long term goal is to use propulsive landings. While the Dragon 2 will have different engines and is a smaller vehicle SpaceX will learn the right amount of fuel etc to be able to safely land.

As the vine below shows SpaceX were very close yesterday and it looks very possible that they will have at least one successful landing this year if not more.  The more flights they have the more attempts they can make.

Will ULA’s Vulcan bring down SpaceX

Almost as soon as United Launch Alliance’s Tory Bruno announced the new Vulcan rocket system did articles start to appear stating that it “would bring down SpaceX”.   One from CNN also incorrectly stated that SpaceX aborted the landing of the first stage yesterday.

While that may be the goal of ULA it is way too soon to be making such bold statements.

First as stated yesterday the upgrades will be rolled out in multiple steps starting in 2019 assuming that everything goes as planned with Blue Origin’s development of the BE-4 engine.  Even then ULA will have to demonstrate that the rocket is as reliable as there current Atlas V or Delta IV before they can move the government launches to the platform, in previous statements Tory himself said certification could take several years.  That doesn’t take into account any re-certification that may be needed when the new upper stage is rolled out.

Second their re-usability plan is for the engines only which will be captured in mid-air and then lowered to a barge and returned to base.  While this has been done before it still relies on the weather co-operating and the time needed to return the engines to the factory/hanger for inspection, re-firing and re-integration with another first stage core.   At present SpaceX have the same challenges with the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) system, but longer term returning to the launch site looks to be more beneficial, only time will tell on that.

Third four-six years is a long time and SpaceX will have plenty of time to improve their offerings, both in relation to payload capacity with Falcon Heavy and on-time launch something they have struggled with so far.

So will Vulcan bring down SpaceX?  It seems very unlikely that on its own the new rocket system will bring them down, it will all depend on how SpaceX performed before Vulcan comes online and how they adapt to the competition that it will bring.