SpaceX’s Musk: Next Falcon 9 flight no sooner than September
A little more than three weeks after a Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX ) Falcon 9 v.1.1 launch vehicle, a Dragon spacecraft, and 4,000 pounds of International Space Station (ISS) cargo, crew supplies and experiments disintegrated just offshore from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), the company’s CEO and Founder, Elon Musk, addressed members of the media during a roughly one hour teleconference. The discussion began at 3:00 p.m. EDT with the entrepreneur answering questions from the press during the second half of the call.
Musk recapped the events that had led to the June 28, 2015, mishap – adding more details about what has taken place since that time. When asked by Florida Today’s James Dean about the timing of the next Falcon 9 flight, Musk stated it would take place no sooner than September of this year and that the customer for that flight is undetermined.
During the teleconference, it was disclosed that the apparent cause of the vehicle’s disintegration was the failure of a steel strut holding a helium bottle in place inside the second stage’s liquid oxygen (LOX) tank. The strut failure resulted in helium leakage into the LOX tank, causing the tank to over-pressurize and rupture, leading to the destruction of the second stage.
Musk went on to state that no problems have been discovered with the first stage and that it had continued to function for several seconds after the second stage tank rupture. In addition, Musk explained that the Dragon capsule continued to communicate with SpaceX’s control center until it fell below the horizon and that it would have survived had it been carrying software enabling the deployment of its parachutes.
Musk made sure to note that today’s announcement was only preliminary in nature and that the strut failure is the current “most probable cause”, pending further analysis/investigation. Relevant parties were informed of SpaceX’s report last week, with, according to SpaceX, those customers expressing support for the company as it continues to work its way through the fault tree.
The NewSpace entrepreneur noted that “thousands” of struts have now been tested and a few of them have failed below their rated level. The strut is designed to handle far in excess of the load experienced during flight, and Musk noted that the strut in question failed far below its rated load level. In addition, Musk explained that adding more than one strut for future flights didn’t “make sense” and that SpaceX would likely just test each strut, individually, prior to flight.
The helium bottle/LOX tank strut has flown on numerous flights and versions are located in both the Falcon 9’s first and second stages. Musk made clear that the strut is not manufactured in-house by SpaceX and stated that the company is considering a change in the material from which the strut or its attachment bolt is made.
Musk noted that, with the 18 prior flights of the Falcon 9 all ending in success, SpaceX seemed to become a bit complacent. However, he did explain that he asks the company’s roughly 4,000 employees, before each flight, to notify him if they can think of any reason to not go forward with a launch.
This accident has not only impacted flights of the Falcon 9 but also the first flight of the company’s new heavy-lift booster as well. Musk stated that the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy booster would now likely take place no sooner than spring of 2016, with April being the current target.
SpaceX launched one of the company’s Falcon 9 v1.1 vehicles, topped with a Dragon capsule, on the seventh operational flight under the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract last month. Within 139 seconds of lift-off, it became apparent that something had gone very wrong with a rapidly-expanding gas plume and bits of debris becoming visible.
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.
If SpaceX allowed a flight critical component to fly without pretesting it, that is a management failure, not just an equipment failure. Management needs an overhaul. Every flight critical component should be tested by NIST qualified individuals with NIST calibrated test equipment. That they allowed this component to fly likely means other untested components were also flying. Lets hope they already have a Metrology (PMEL) department somewhere buried inside their walls.
There are millions of bogus bolts and rivets now in circulation throughout the world. Bolt manufacturers can make a lot more profit by cheating on the amount of expensive alloying metals, and heat treating methods. They can get away with cheating because few of the bolts will be tested. And very few will fail in use, since bolt sizes are generally oversized enough to prevent early failure of the bogus bolts in the vast majority of uses. Good luck suing a company in Asia, especially if the government owns most of it.