Shotwell: ‘We did something to that rocket, and we’re going to find it and we’re going to fix it.’
SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell addressed the Asia-Pacific Satellite Communications Council (APSCC) 2016 conference held in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on Oct. 5, 2016, answering questions about the company’s status – including the Amos-6 satellite disaster.
Among Shotwell’s topics were the reasons behind the two most recent dramatic failures of their Falcon 9 rocket. Shotwell stated the NewSpace company will be back on its feet and into space again by the end of this year and will be offering satellite customers a price discount when they launch with one of their previously flown and refurbished Falcon 9s.
Shotwell explained that the June 28, 2015, destruction of their Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the unmanned Dragon CRS-7 cargo ship transporting more than 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), was most likely due to the failure of a strut holding a high-pressure helium bottle inside a liquid oxygen tank in the rocket’s second stage. The subsequent flooding of helium into the liquid oxygen caused the tank to over-pressurize and explode, destroying the entire rocket and, eventually, after it impacted with the Atlantic Ocean, the SpX-7 Dragon.
As reported in Space News on Oct. 5, Shotwell stated that SpaceX was not “100 percent sure, but 99 percent sure” that the Sept. 1, 2016, destruction of the second Falcon 9, which exploded at the Cape’s SLC-40 during fueling in preparation for a static test fire with Spacecom’s Amos-6 communications satellite aboard, was not due to recurring issues with the Falcon 9′s helium bottle.
“Until we complete the investigation and get through all the data, and all the scenarios, you can’t say it wasn’t this or it wasn’t that,” said Shotwell. “I can tell you that the signature for this particular failure was substantially different from the one we saw last June. It’s incredibly unlikely that the scenario that we saw last June was the same as this one. It’s extremely low on the possibility list right now.”
Asked about the possibility of a design issue with the Falcon 9 helium bottle, Shotwell replied that she did not think such a flaw was likely.
“I think it probably is more focused on the operations, which is one of the reasons we believe we can get back to flight so quickly,” Shotwell explained. “But we have to finish the investigation. We’re not going to fly until we’re ready to fly.”
SpaceX’s President also addressed the recent rumors that the Falcon 9 carrying Amos-6 was destroyed by deliberate sabotage, a theory that was reported in the Sept. 30, 2016, issue of The Washington Post and forwarded on other news sites.
Shotwell said that while all plausible possibilities have to be considered in order to uncover the real reason for the explosion she felt that “the more than likely – the overwhelmingly likely – explanation is that we did something to that rocket. And we’re going to find it and we’re going to fix it.” Shotwell added that the possibility of the sabotage scenario being the correct one was “[a]bsolutely not high on my list of thoughts.”
Another concern expressed about SpaceX was the possibility that the company may be trying to conduct too many projects at once. This comes on the heels of SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk revealing the company’s Interplanetary Transport System at the 67th International Astronautical Congress held in Guadalajara, Mexico, late last month (September 2016). These plans include launching humans to Mars as early as 2024 aboard their Red Dragon spacecraft and following up with a massive colonization effort of the Red Planet and elsewhere in the Solar System.
Shotwell responded with the fact that SpaceX currently employs five thousand people, which she stated is “a lot”.
“Less than five percent of my staff by number is working on the LEO constellation,” said Shotwell. “Actually if I’m doing math in public it’s substantially less than five percent. And it’s an even smaller percentage working on the Mars vehicle [Red Dragon] right now. For sure, our focus is getting Falcon 9 back to flight safely and reliably, making sure [Crew] Dragon is getting upgraded appropriately to be able to fly crew next year, and Falcon Heavy as well.”
With all this being said, SpaceX’s proposed fleet, or constellation, of four thousand satellites is to be placed in low-Earth orbit (LEO) for global communications is still in the design phase, with no definite start date just yet, other than test flights being conducted sometime in 2017.
Shotwell said that regarding the company’s comsat constellation, “There have been a number of attempts at doing something like this, and all of them have largely failed. So you don’t go and spend $5-plus billion on a system that’s not going to be a benefit to folks. We are developing test-flight satellites that we hope to launch next year. But really the key for us is the technology for the user equipment. If I can’t build an antenna that’s going to install easily on your roof or in your yard for a couple of hundred dollars, then it’s going to be very difficult to compete with the existing systems.” Shotwell also apologized for being “a little vague” on launch dates and other aspects of this SpaceX project at present.
Shotwell also apologized for being “a little vague” on launch dates and other aspects of this SpaceX project at present.
Shotwell provided additional information regarding SpaceX’s price change on their discount for customers using a reused Falcon rocket to boost their vessels into space, where costs will currently only be at a ten percent decrease rather than the earlier promise of 30 percent.
“We are not decreasing the price by 30 percent right now for recovered and reused vehicles,” explained Shotwell. “We’re offering about a 10 percent price reduction. I’d rather fly on an airplane that’s flown before as I’d feel more comfortable with its reliability,” Shotwell said. “At this point, that is a reasonable reduction and then, as we recover some of the costs associated with the investment that we put into the Falcon 9 to achieve that, then we might get a little bit more. But in general, it’s about 10 percent right now.”
Shotwell, who was listed by Forbes Magazine as the 76th most powerful woman in the world, has been with SpaceX since the company’s founding in 2002.
Larry Klaes is an author and freelance journalist specializing in news and educational work on the sciences. Klae's past endeavors include editor of SETIQuest magazine and President of the Boston chapter of the National Space Society (NSS). Klaes joined SpaceFlight Insider in 2016.
I’m sticking with the theory that I wrote in SpaceNews a couple of weeks after it blew up, and no data pointed to a cause of the failure.
They put too much thermal stress on those helium tanks by submerging them too fast in super cooled liquid oxygen while they were too hot from the compressed helium being pumped into them. The contraction from the rapid cooling is what cracked the over wrap. As soon as oxygen bubbles generated from the turbulence touched the unoxidized aluminum tank where it split, along with the finely divided carbon dust, it was BOOM, baby.
They should have tested the faster filling sequence out in Texas, or at least without that expensive satellite on the rocket. Even test firing the thing with an expensive satellite up there risks losing both of them if anything goes wrong. I hope they don’t intend to modify anything in the launch sequence with people on it. Murphy’s Law is always waiting to strike.