Was SpaceX’s Lost Falcon 9 The Victim Of Sabotage?

Article written: 4 Oct , 2016
Updated: 5 Nov , 2016

On Sept. 1st, 2016, aerospace giant SpaceX suffered a terrible setback when one of their Falcon 9 rockets inexplicably exploded during a fueling test. An investigation into the causes of the accident – which Musk described as being the “most difficult and complex failure” in the company’s history – was immediately mounted.

And while the focus of the investigation has been on potential mechanical failures – such as a possible breach In 2nd stage helium system – another line in inquiry also came to light recently. In this case, the focus was on the ongoing feud between SpaceX and its greatest competitor, United Launch Alliance (ULA), and whether or not that could have played a role.

Speculation about this possible connection began after three unnamed industry officials who were familiar with the accident shared details of an incident that happened a few weeks after the explosion. According to The Washington Post, these officials claimed that SpaceX had come across something suspicious during the course of their investigation.

On Sept. 1st, one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket's exploded during a static firing test. The company is now facing a potential legal battle over the damage caused. Credit: SpaceX

On Sept. 1st, one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket’s exploded during a static firing test. The company is now facing a potential legal battle over the damage caused. Credit: SpaceX

After pouring over images and video from the explosion, SpaceX investigators noticed an odd shadow and then a white spot on the roof of building located close to their launch complex. The building is currently being leased by ULA to refurbish their Sensible Modular Autonomous Return Technology (SMART) rocket motors – a key component in the company’s new Vulcan rocket.

Located about one and half kilometers (1 mile) from SpaceX’s launch facilities, and has a clear line of sight on the launch pad. SpaceX dispatched an representative to check it out, who arrived at the building and requested access to the roof. A ULA representative denied them access and called Air Force investigators, who then inspected the roof themselves and determined that nothing of a suspicions nature was there.

While the incident proved to be inconclusive, it is the fact that it was not previously reported that is raising some eyebrows. And it is just another mysterious detail to come from an accident that remains largely unexplained. However, in all likelihood the incident was avoided to prevent embarrassment to either company, and to avoid fueling speculations about possible sabotage (which seems highly unlikely at this point).

In the meantime, SpaceX is still investigating the explosion with the help of NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the USAF’s 45th Space Wing. Musk commented on the ongoing investigation while attending the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload and damaged the pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload and damaged the pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In the midst of sharing the latest details of his vision to colonize Mars, Musk was quoted by The Washington Post as saying that the investigation is his company’s “absolute top priority.” As for the cause, he went on to say that they have “eliminated all of the obvious possibilities for what occurred there. So what remains are the less probable answers.”

Whether or not sabotage is a realistic possibility, this incident does serve to highlight the rivalry between SpaceX and ULA. Prior to 2014, ULA was the sole provider of launch services for the US Air Force, until a lawsuit from SpaceX compelled them to open the field to competition. Since then, both companies have been fighting – sometimes bitterly – to secure national security contracts.

It has also brought the issue of government oversight and accountability to the fore. On Sept. 29th, members of Congress Mike Coffman (R-Co) and Robert Aderholt (R-Al) sent a congressional letter to the heads of NASA, the US Air Force and the FAA expressing concerns about SpaceX’s recent accidents and the need for “assured access to space”.

In the letter, Coffman and Aderholt indicated that authority for investigating this and other accidents involving commercial space companies should be entrusted to the federal government:

“The investigative responses to both SpaceX failures raise serious concerns about the authority provided to commercial providers and the protection of national space assets. In both Falcon 9 explosions, NASA and the FAA granted primary responsibility for conducting the mishap investigation to SpaceX. Although subject to FAA oversight, it can be asserted the investigation lacked the openness taxpayers would expect before a return-to-flight.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In other words, several Republican members of Congress hope to make SpaceX’s return to flight contingent on more stringent federal oversight. This may prove to be a source of inconvenience for SpaceX, which has stated that they intend to return to regular flights with their Falcon 9 rockets by November 1st.

Then again, increased federal oversight may also be beneficial in the long run. As is stated in the letter, both accidents involving SpaceX in the past few months occurred after the USAF signed off on the rockets involved:

“Both accidents occurred after the Air Force certified the Falcon 9 launch vehicle for U.S. national security launches, less than fifteen months ago. The certification, designed to subject the Falcon 9’s design and manufacturing process to a review of their technical and manufacturing rigor, appears to have fallen short of ensuring reliable assured US access to space for our most important payloads.”

Clearly, something is wrong if technical failures are not being caught in advance. But then again, space exploration is a hard business, and even the most routine checks can’t account for everything. Nevertheless, if there’s one thing that the Space Race taught us, it is that fierce competition can lead to mistakes, which can in turn cost lives.

As such, demanding that the federal authorities be on hand to ensure that safety standards are met, and that all competitors are being subjected to the same regulatory framework (without preference), might not be a bad idea.

Further Reading: The Washington Post

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4 Responses

  1. BCstargazer says

    so a ULA bad apple?

  2. Dollar Flipper says

    Perfect example of Betteridge’s Law…


  3. Torbjörn Larsson says

    Then again, twice as many House Members have signed a counter letter applauding earlier and ongoing accident investigations by the book:

    “”Consistent with regulations, the Falcon 9 anomaly has been properly classified as a ‘mishap’ under federal law and is being resolved under applicable regulatory procedures,” the members state in the letter directed to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.”

    “”We applaud this approach as consistent with long-standing accident investigation procedures and post-anomaly return-to-flight processes internal to Air Force and NASA regulations,” the letter states.”

    “The new letter, while not explicitly mentioning the earlier one, alludes to it when calling on agencies to maintain their current roles in this investigation. “Accidents are unfortunate events, and accident investigations should not be politicized,” it states. “We encourage you to reject calls for your organizations to abandon established, well-considered, and long-standing procedures.”
    The letter is signed by 11 Republicans and 13 Democrats.”

    [ http://www.space.com/34299-house-members-express-support-for-spacex-accident-investigation.html ]

  4. ProfMOZ says

    yes, yes, got it! When technical advances by one competitor threaten the others, industry-espionage and -sabotage occur.
    By cutting cost SpaceX poses a threat, especially to ULA, which has charged a lot more for their launches.
    It’s simple, up in the ivory towers of large corporations, ethics and morals are not important, but securing business through ruthless, even criminal action and lies… a history of this behavior has existed, and still exists in Big Biz.
    A simple 50 cal. bullet can, over a distance of 1 to 1.5 miles achieve a result like the one we have recently seen.
    Secondly, it is obvious that the GOP has longstanding relations and interests with the Military Industrial Complex and will protect these even with smearing a “newcomer” space-company like SpaceX with the label of unreliability.
    In my view something stinks here very badly…
    And no, this has nothing to do with conspiracy!

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