On Saturday, April 20th, 2019, an explosion took place on SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The company was engaged in a series of static fire engine tests for their Crew Dragon‘s In-Flight Abort test vehicle. This vehicle is essential for crewed missions since it acts as a sort of ejection seat for the crew capsule in the event of an emergency.
While the initial tests of the twelve Draco thrusters on the vehicle were completed successfully, the initiation of the final test of eight SuperDraco thrusters resulted in the destruction of the vehicle. After a thorough investigation, SpaceX has concluded that the explosion was caused by a nitrogen tetroxide leak that occurred just prior to the final test.
SpaceX experienced a rather serious setback last week as a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad while preparing for a static fire test. The launch was meant to deploy one of Spacecom latest communications satellites (AMOS-6), which was also destroyed in the accident. Mercifully, no one was hurt, and an investigation was quickly mounted to determine the root cause.
However, in the aftermath of the explosion, it appears that SpaceX could be facing legal battles, as Spacecom indicated that it is seeking compensation for the loss of their satellite. According to a recent press released by the Israel-based telecommunications company, this will either take the form of $50 million, or a free flight aboard another SpaceX launch.
As the sixth satellite to be launched by the telecommunications company, the AMOS-6 satellite was intended to provide phone, video and internet services for the Middle East, Europe, and locations across sub-Sahara Africa. As such, it’s destruction was certainly a loss for the company.
But as they stated in their press release – which was released on Monday, Sept. 5th – their plan is “to recover funds invested in the project” and to replace the satellite as soon as possible. As David Pollack, Spacecom CEO and president, was quoted as saying:
“Spacecom has crafted a plan of action which represents the foundation upon which we shall recover from AMOS-6’s loss. Our program includes, among other measures, exploring the possibility of procuring and launching a replacement satellite. Working quickly and efficiently, management is engaging with current and potential partner. Spacecom will serve all of its current and future financial commitments.”
In addition to covering their losses, these moves are clearly intended to ensure that the company can still move ahead with its planned merger. Prior to the launch, Spacecom was engaged in talks with the Beijing Xinwei Group – a Chinese telecommunications company – about being acquired for $285 million. One of the conditions of this deal was the successful launch of the AMOS-6 and completion of in orbit testing.
As Pollack told the Financial Times, his company is still in the process of negotiating the merger, but the price may come down as a result of the loss. “We are speaking to them;” he said, “we are trying to adapt it to the new situation. It definitely might go ahead… everybody is trying to keep the deal”.
Spacecom has also suggested that the firm might pursue an additional $205 million in compensation from Israel Aerospace Industries, which manufactured the satellite. Not surprising, since the price of their stock had dropped by over a third since the accident took place.
Since the accident took place, SpaceX has been keeping the public updated on the results of their investigation. On Friday, Sept 2nd, they released the latest finds, which included where the problems began:
“The anomaly on the pad resulted in the loss of the vehicle. This was part of a standard pre-launch static fire to demonstrate the health of the vehicle prior to an eventual launch. At the time of the loss, the launch vehicle was vertical and in the process of being fueled for the test. At this time, the data indicates the anomaly originated around the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Per standard operating procedure, all personnel were clear of the pad. There were no injuries.”
No indications have been given yet as to what could have caused the tanks to explode, but the company is still processing the data and posting updates on a regular basis. In any event, the recent accident appears to have been a minor setback for the private aerospace giant, which will be pushing ahead with a full year of launch contracts.
This will likely include the first launch of the Falcon Heavy, which is expected to take place before 2016 is out.
Yes, there was a thumbs up. Through an interview with the father of the SpaceShipTwo pilot, the Daily Mail has reported more details of the near fatal plunge of Peter Siebold from the explosive event that destroyed Scaled Composites’ space vehicle. The ill-fated test flight resulted in the death of the co-pilot, Mike Alsbury. Siebold was visited by his father, Dr Klaus Siebold of Seattle, Washington, after Siebold was released from the hospital.
The Daily Mail story confirms what had been rumor from anonymous sources inside Scale Composites, the company founded by Burt Rutan that created the first privately developed vehicle to exceed the Karman line and reach the environs of outer space. As has been rumored, pilot Siebold, while on parachute, gave a thumbs up sign to a nearby chase plane to indicate he was conscious.
Dr. Siebold, speaking to a Daily Mail reporter, described how his son fell from 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) after SpaceShipTwo broke apart while traveling at a speed of mach 1.2, that is, 913 mph (1,470 km/hr). Early findings of the NTSB investigation have revealed that SpaceShipTwo’s twin tails feathered, that is, folded up, prematurely, creating excessive forces on the carbon composite air frame and led to the craft’s break up.
Dr. Siebold told the Daily Mail that his son is not sure how he separated from the vehicle during the violent event at supersonic speed. He could not recall any details of the sudden event. Such high speed events can take place in a matter of a second or less.
His co-pilot and close friend, Mike Alsbury, was not able to escape from the broken vehicle and fell with the debris to his death to the floor of the Mojave desert. The fall to Earth of the broken vehicle and the two test pilots took over four minutes traveling at a terminal velocity of approximately 150 mph (220 ft/sec, 67 m/s).
Dr. Siebold went on to describe his son’s narrow escape. Pilot Siebold could not recall the breakup and only recalls waking up at 20,000 feet (6096 meters). Both pilots flew with emergency parachutes. Such parachutes would not deploy or deploy correctly without the pilot separating from his pilot seat. As he awoke, Peter Siebold was sufficiently coherent to realize his circumstances and unbuckled himself. The parachute subsequently deployed but the accounting by the father, Dr. Siebold, did not make clear whether his son pulled the rip cord or the parachute was deployed automatically. Both pilots’ parachutes had mechanisms to force automatic deployment at 20,000 feet altitude. However, when a pilot is still strapped into his pilot seat, parachute deployment would be disabled or if executed, would cause severe injury to the person due to the propulsive forces that push the chute from the bag. Such forces would be forced upon the pilot’s body while locked into his seat.
The break-up led to three coinciding invasive events: sudden deceleration forces, the creation of high velocity projectiles – debris – surrounding the pilots, and a decompression event. The pilots wore simple oxygen masks without pressure suits, so their bodies withstood a split second change from cabin pressure of 1 atmosphere to that of a near-vacuum pressure. Any or all three events at breakup were responsible for the pilots’ losing consciousness within seconds if not immediately. The investigation has not revealed how co-pilot Alsbury lost his life, whether during the break-up or at impact with the Earth.
The story provides more details of Peter Siebold’s life. He has two young sons and was inspired by his father, a private pilot, to learn to fly and ultimately receive a job with Scaled Composites over ten years ago. Having no knowledge of a powered test flight that morning, Dr. Siebold described to the Daily Mail how he received a frantic call from his daughter in-law. Siebold’s wife and children were standing alongside their close friends – the children and wife of Mike Alsbury when the catastrophic event unfolded in the skies above them.
The flight took off during the early hours of October 31, 2014, on what appeared to be the beginning of a final phase of testing to qualify the spaceship for commercial flight. With early findings revealing that the event was apparently triggered by Alsbury’s inadvertently releasing the safing mechanism for feathering the tail sections, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic are beginning to express a likelihood that test flights will restart in as short as 6 months. Apparently, neither the NTSB nor FAA has enforced any grounding of the test program and vehicle. While pilot error may have been involved, the NTSB has included that the act of feathering the tails to slow down the vehicle during its descent from a high altitude requires unlocking the safing mechanism followed by a second step that folds the tail section. The second action would be similar to the act of lowering one’s landing flaps for landing: something which would be well understood by any private or commercial pilot.
On the morning of April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin lifted off aboard Vostok 1 to become the first human in space, spending 108 minutes in orbit before landing via parachute in the Saratov region of the USSR. The soft-spoken and well-mannered Gagarin, just 27 years old at the time, became an instant hero, representing the success of the Soviet space program (Alan Shepard’s shorter, suborbital flight happened less than a month later) to the entire world. Gagarin later went on to become a director for the Cosmonaut Training Center and was preparing for a second space flight. Tragically, he was killed when a MiG-15 aircraft he was piloting crashed on March 27, 1968.
Gagarin’s death has long been shrouded by confusion and controversy, with many theories proposed as to the actual cause. Now, 45 years later, details about what really happened to cause the death of the first man in space have come out — from the first man to go out on a spacewalk, no less.
According to an article published online today on Russia Today (RT.com) former cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov — who performed the first EVA on March 18, 1965 — has revealed details about the accident that killed both Yuri Gagarin and his flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin in March 1968.
Officially the cause of the crash was said to be the ill-fated result of an attempt to avoid a foreign object during flight training in their MiG-15UTI, a two-seated, dual-controlled training version of the widely-produced Soviet aircraft. “Foreign objects” could be anything, from balloons to flocks of birds to airborne debris to… well, you see where one could go with that. (And over the years many have.)
The maneuver led to the aircraft going into a tailspin and crashing, killing both men. But experienced pilots like Gagarin and Seryogin shouldn’t have lost control of their plane like that — not according to Leonov, who has been trying to release details of the event for the past 20 years… if only that the pilots’ families might know the truth.
Now, a declassified report, which Leonov has been permitted to share, shows what actually happened during the training flight: an “unauthorized Su-15 fighter” flew too close to Gagarin’s MiG, disrupting its flight and sending it into a spin.
“In this case, the pilot didn’t follow the book, descending to an altitude of 450 meters,” Leonov says in the RT.com article. “While afterburning the aircraft reduced its echelon at a distance of 10-15 meters in the clouds, passing close to Gagarin, turning his plane and thus sending it into a tailspin — a deep spiral, to be precise — at a speed of 750 kilometers per hour.”
The pilot of the Su-15 — who is still alive — was was not named, a condition of Leonov’s permission to share the information.
According to first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova, who was officially grounded by the government after Gagarin’s death to avoid a loss of another prominent cosmonaut, the details come as a bittersweet relief.
“The only regret here is that it took so long for the truth to be revealed,” Tereshkova said. “But we can finally rest easy.”