Gripping details emerge of 45th Space Wing’s response to SpaceX explosion
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — “There’s been an explosion on Pad 40.”
Chilling words, but when the 45th Space Wing’s Fire Chief made the call over the safety net, the Incident Management Team (IMT) was ready. Having trained extensively for this scenario, the team was quick to respond and began implementing emergency operation procedures designed to protect the public, area personnel, and site infrastructure.
Benefiting from constant training and preparation, the IMT was rapidly mobilized and began stationing assets at strategic locations around Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the pad during a pre-test fueling operation.
This emergency response was chronicled in a recent post by Lt. Col. Greg Lindsey, 45th Mission Support Group commander Detachment 1, and sheds light on some of the activities of the day – and suggests the OSIRIS-REx mission at nearby SLC-41 was in greater danger than was initially reported.
Though spaceflight is a risky endeavor, the IMT hasn’t been called to respond to such an incident in nearly twenty years, with their last action coming from the loss of a Delta II rocket on January 17, 1997, a mere 13 seconds after liftoff.
That all changed on Sept. 1 at 9:07 a.m. EDT when a Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket exploded at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida.
The rocket was being loaded with propellants – liquid oxygen and RP-1, a highly refined kerosene fuel used in rockets – as part of SpaceX’s readiness procedures prior to each flight, leading to a brief static fire of the first stage’s engines.
However, approximately eight minutes prior to the firing of the engines, the vehicle exploded, destroying the rocket, its payload – the Israeli Amos-6 communications satellite – and significantly damaging the pad and surrounding infrastructure.
Video from the mishap shows a massive explosion erupting from the two-stage rocket’s upper stage, eventually consuming the entire vehicle. The payload fairing, with the Amos-6 spacecraft, can be seen tumbling from the rocket and striking the ground before a secondary explosion erupts at the base of the pad.
Though the investigation is ongoing, it is proving to be incredibly difficult to determine the exact cause of the explosion.
For Lt. Col Lindsey, the explosion was only the start of what would turn out to be a very long day:
The call came over the safety net, followed by a call from the Fire Chief … We immediately dispatched fire trucks to a staging position and began evacuating all nearby facilities. Next step was to activate our Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Emergency Operations Center (EOC), a joint team comprised of military, government civilians, and contracted personnel from across the 45th Space Wing. This team provides expertise in many critical functional areas so I manage the response phase of the operation.
Since the incident occurred during a planned hazardous operation, our customer, SpaceX, had coordinated with members of the 45th Security Forces Squadron to clear a predetermined safe zone known as a “Blast Danger Area” to prevent any injuries in the event that an anomaly would occur. Because the BDA had been established, my Pad Safety representative was able to verify that the BDA was clear prior to the start of the test which provided us with the good news that no one was injured within that safe zone. Security was able to immediately account for their security officers who formed the cordon of the BDA and so very quickly I was assured that we had 100 percent accountability with no injuries. With that information, I knew that our team could focus on the situation at the pad, or so I thought.
Luckily, with strict safety procedures already in place during hazardous operations, the IMT was able to quickly determine that no one was injured in the immediate area. Lt. Col. Lindsey continues with his recounting, noting the early hopes that the incident would be contained to Pad 40 (SLC-40) and environs, but those hopes were quickly dashed.
As our team gathered in the EOC, we conducted an initial briefing to establish a baseline of where each Emergency Support Function and Subject Matter Expert was in regards to their individual response efforts and where they could assist. The ESFs are functions such as the fire department, security, emergency management, and SMEs are representatives from each of our range users, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Pad Safety, and a host of others who contribute valuable insight to this dynamic response.
While you might think our immediate concern was the fires on the pad and their sources, my civil engineer representative informed me that, during the explosion, the deluge system had been damaged and most of the water was being shot up into the air rather than being dispersed across the pad as designed. The SpaceX rep informed me that while the deluge wasn’t functioning optimally, it was still helping to suppress the fire somewhat. That was fine except for one thing – our 1.2 million gallon tank was being depleted at a rapid rate and there was no way to refill the tanks fast enough to sustain the output. If the tanks ran dry, then the motors to the pumps would burn up, which would render the deluge system inoperable for other launch pads meaning our upcoming ULA launch might then be in danger.
Another issue I had to immediately consider were the many different high-pressure systems on the pad and whether or not they had been compromised and how to bring the pressures down if needed. Our team and I decided to take a multitask approach as we decided to send in our Initial Response Team to shut down the pumps and turn off one of the high-pressure systems that could be accessed from outside the perimeter of the launch pad.
With a plan in place, teams were able to secure the health of the deluge system, ensuring that it would be operational for the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V 411 launch, carrying NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, scheduled for the following week. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the asteroid-sampling mission was free from peril just yet.
No sooner had we accomplished the securing of the pumps when I was approached by another one of our range users who explained they were losing pressure on the chillers at a neighboring launch complex. Without those chillers, the spacecraft for the next launch would be lost. Needless to say, at this point, I had to re-establish our priorities and get a team working on a way to get our IRT into Space Launch Complex 41 to allow access for technicians to enter in order to make the necessary repairs.
As we were reviewing the plan, word came in from Pad 41 that all of the pressures were lost and technicians had to get to the spacecraft immediately. This is a situation when good working relationships with our counterparts at Kennedy Space Center came into play. We were able to coordinate with the KSC EOC for access through their roadblocks and get the required support to the spacecraft in plenty of time to not only save the spacecraft but [also] to keep the planned launch on schedule.
Though Lt. Col. Lindsey doesn’t specifically mention OSIRIS-REx as the stricken spacecraft, with ULA being the customer operating at Pad 41 (SLC-41), it’s not a great leap of logic to assume that was what the Colonel meant.
If OSIRIS-REx was in such jeopardy, it runs in stark contrast to the reports that followed in the days of the incident, which seemed to imply – by omission – a much rosier state of affairs at the ULA launch site during the conflagration occurring at nearby SLC-40 than what the 45th Space Wing’s release suggests. While it’s not apparent if the cooling system’s failure was related to the SpaceX mishap or merely coincidental, it is clear that the IMT’s actions helped save the spacecraft.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of our response was after the fires were out. This is when it’s time to go in and clear the launch pad of any hazardous debris. Naturally, there may be pieces of jagged metal or broken blocks of concrete lying around, but there are also remnants of hazardous commodities as well as the possibility of unexploded ordnance on scene.
A team of trained Air Force experts consisting of EOD, Fire Department, and Environmental Health and Pad Safety personnel held the perimeter of the launch complex in order to assess the situation from a closer vantage point throughout the day. EOD Airmen are trained to detect, dispose and render safe any possible explosive threats while Environmental Health personnel continued to monitor the air quality to ensure it was safe for emergency responders and the general public. Fire department and range safety officials monitored the liquid holding tanks for flare ups and pressure issues.
Clearing the pad is extremely dangerous and requires careful planning by all of the members of the response team. EOD, environmental health, the fire department, pad safety, and our SpaceX representatives were all instrumental in putting together a carefully orchestrated plan, which allowed each function to accomplish their task in a safe manner that allowed the next function to proceed in a much safer environment.
It’s also important to mention that all of these tasks were tackled by our response teams during almost constant lightning and tornado watches, followed by the pending Tropical Storm Hermine that was coming across Florida. Managing a crisis is one thing, piling on significant weather events only added to the overall complexity of the entire day.
Lt. Col. Lindsey’s recounting illuminates the multitude of skills needed to respond to events of this nature. Beyond simply fighting fires, the IMT must also handle a variety of hazardous substances, some of which may be explosive, and do this under less-than-ideal conditions. Lost on many during the events of the day, the weather at the launch site was not optimal, with the colonel noting the near-incessant severe weather warnings from the approaching tropical system.
Because [the] emergency response is so dangerous, there are times when we must be willing to think a little outside of the box. For example, valves needed to be shut down in order to make them safe. One course of action we considered was to use one of the robots operated by our EOD team. While we ultimately decided not to go that route, it’s important to note how our team works through these scenarios to solve various problems that present themselves during such an incident.
One suggestion we did pursue was one made by the EOC Manager – that we should explore the possibility of getting one of NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the air. Once again, our KSC counterparts shared resources with us and were more than eager to support. I had the SpaceX rep meet them at the staging area with a map of the pad and suggested flight paths covering areas of particular concern to be filmed. It wasn’t too long after that first phone call until our incident commander was reviewing footage from the flight over the pad prior to the IRT, making its initial entry onto the pad itself. This partnership of sharing resources between mission partners allowed us to quickly provide the IRT with a lot of visual details of what they would encounter at the pad and when in a dynamic situation like this, having a visual picture adds to our capability and strengthens our overall response timelines and efforts.
As darkness came, EOC members continued to monitor the situation throughout the night to ensure the safety of our personnel and the public.
Though some may believe all launch facilities on the Cape belong to NASA, the colonel’s description shows a clear separation between USAF and NASA operations. Nevertheless, when the situation calls, it’s evident that there’s a good operational relationship between the two governmental entities. Lt. Col. Lindsey concludes:
It was a rewarding experience from the standpoint as an EOC Director to “sit in the seat” and be supported by so many highly trained and skilled professionals. Responding to a contingency is never something we want to do, but it is good to know that when we have to, I have a team that can work through the chaos in a calm and calculated manner. A team that sets priorities in a dynamic environment, accomplishing tasks while keeping our people and the public safe.
This is a capability that you don’t want to have to use, but you’re glad is there. Space is inherently dangerous … on this day we were faced with a difficult challenge, but one we were ready for. Moving forward, there will be some rebuilding that is necessary, but everyone went home safe to their families that night and woke up the next morning ready to go at it again.
Our range is comprised of the most knowledgeable, professional, and committed personnel in the launch business today. This is what makes our range unique and speaks to our commitment to providing assured access to space.
On a day when the unthinkable happened, the operators of the 45th Space Wing’s Incident Management Team demonstrated why training and preparation are critical when the need arises. Through the dedication and hard work of the men and women tasked with protecting personnel and hardware at one of the United States’ key launch facilities, the disaster of the day was mitigated and a key science mission was saved.
Video courtesy of USLaunchReport
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.