2014 incident may provide clue to cause of SpaceX Falcon 9 failure
One week ago today, Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX ) Falcon 9 v1.1 booster suffered a catastrophic failure, approximately 2 minutes and 19 seconds into flight, resulting in the loss of the rocket, the Dragon capsule sitting atop the rocket, and critical cargo intended for resupply and expansion of the International Space Station (ISS).
Shortly after the failure, SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk, tweeted that “[t]here was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests [a] counterintuitive cause.”
NASASpaceflight.com made the observation that “the note from Mr. Musk provides a potential pointer towards the helium pressurization system’s bottles in the Second Stage. [The] Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessels (COPVs) […] have been a topic of engineering discussion for SpaceX in the past, with ‘bad trends’ in a number of helium bottles causing a manifest debate relating to the CRS-6/SpX-6 and TurkmenistanSat missions.”
On August 21, 2014, Cimarron Composites, a Huntsville, AL, company “which develops and produces high performance composite tanks and pressure vessels,” and who lists SpaceX as a client on its website, suffered a failure of what appeared to be a pressure vessel similar to those used by SpaceX.
As reported by WAFF 48: “Pieces of metal were scattered several hundred yards from the site of the explosion. The percussive effects of the explosion knocked light fixtures inside the facility off the walls. […] ‘The ground shook… ceiling tiles were damaged. It was a big shock that went through everything.’ […] ‘[T]he building across the street […] had a piece of metal that actually went through it.'”
In addition, an online search in the days following the August 21, 2014, incident, and now no longer available except in a Google search results summary, revealed that Cimarron and / or its owner / president, Tom Delay “developed a 300 liter type 3 pressure vessel that contains 5,000 psi helium for the Space-X rockets.”
Shortly after the 2014 incident, SpaceFlight Insider contacted Cimarron, requesting additional information, including an inquiry as to whether the test / failure was, in any way, related to SpaceX. To date, no response has been received.
To be clear, it’s not believed that Cimarron produced / manufactured any COPVs flown on the SpaceX CRS-7 booster, as it’s understood that SpaceX has now moved COPV production “in-house.” However, it does appear that Cimarron has relatively recently produced, for SpaceX, COPVs similar to those flown on CRS-7, and a failure, similar to the one that apparently took place last year in Huntsville, could certainly produce damage sufficient to take down a launch vehicle.
The CRS-7 mission launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida at 10:21 a.m. EDT (14:21 GMT) with more than 4,000 lbs (1,814 kg) of cargo, crew supplies, and experiments bound for the Space Station. This was the first major failure of a Falcon 9 rocket since the booster first took to the skies in 2010.
Scott earned both a Bachelor's Degree in public administration, and a law degree, from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He currently practices law in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood. Scott first remembers visiting Marshall Space Flight Center in 1978 to get an up-close look at the first orbiter, Enterprise, which had been transported to Huntsville for dynamic testing. More recently, in 2006, he participated in an effort at the United States Space and Rocket Center (USSRC) to restore the long-neglected Skylab 1-G Trainer. This led to a volunteer position, with the USSRC curator, where he worked for several years maintaining exhibits and archival material, including flown space hardware. Scott attended the STS - 110, 116 and 135 shuttle launches, along with Ares I-X, Atlas V MSL and Delta IV NROL-15 launches. More recently, he covered the Atlas V SBIRS GEO-2 and MAVEN launches, along with the Antares ORB-1, SpaceX CRS-3, and Orion EFT-1 launches.