Sunday, September 25, 2016

SpaceX finds some answers, but is NASA starting to have second thoughts?

SpaceX is closer to understanding why their rocket exploded at Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC 40) on September 1. They may also be getting closer to seriously upsetting NASA.

A September 23 statement on the SpaceX website said, "At this stage of the investigation, preliminary review of the data and debris suggests that a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank took place."

This isn't the first time the second stage liquid oxygen tank has been involved in a mishap. A faulty strut inside a second stage oxygen tank was blamed for the destruction of a Falcon 9 rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station in June 2015.

Is there a connection between that incident and the recent one? According to SpaceX, no.

"Through the fault tree and data review process, we have exonerated any connection with last year's CRS-7 mishap."

Even if the cause is different from the last time, SpaceX has a problem with that second stage oxygen tank. And NASA is not convinced that a faulty strut was solely responsible for the first incident.

According to an article at Parabolic Arc, an investigation by NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) uncovered several potential issues that could have contributed to the first accident.

Based on that LSP investigation, a recent report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) said, "In addition to the material defects in the strut assembly SpaceX found during its testing, LSP pointed to manufacturing damage or improper installation of the assembly into the rocket as possible initiators of the failure."

The OIG report went on to say, "LSP also highlighted improper material selection and such practices as individuals standing on flight hardware during the assembly process, as possible contributing factors."

The LSP report noted that NASA was concerned about these issues. They sent a letter to SpaceX last February "...expressing concerns about the company's systems engineering and management practices, hardware installation and repair methods, and telemetry systems based on LSP's review of the failure."

The article at Parabolic Arc has further details and a link to the full OIG report.

Left unsaid is whether or not NASA is starting to run out of patience with SpaceX. Also unknown is whether or not Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, is paying attention to the gathering storm clouds.

Rocket accidents bring out the armchair analysts in droves claiming all sorts of things. One group of space cadets said an alien spaceship destroyed the rocket.

Perhaps the most interesting evaluation was done by a guy who goes by the name Thunderf00t. He did a 17-minute video analysis that identified the second stage oxygen tank as the likely problem. Keep in mind that his video came out before SpaceX's September 23 announcement.

That's all for this week. Let's see what new revelations emerge in the riveting space soap opera, As the Rocket Burns.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The fallout from SpaceX rocket explosion continues


SpaceX still doesn't know what caused their Falcon 9 rocket to explode at Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC 40) on September 1. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk even turned to Twitter looking for help. He asked people to send him any video or pictures they might have of the incident, as noted in the story at Engadget, Elon Musk seeks public footage for SpaceX investigation.

(For background about the incident, read the blog post SpaceX accident bad news for space industry, including Canada.)

The media initially reported that no other launch pads were affected. In fact, if it wasn't for the quick work of emergency teams, the entire launch facility could have been shut down. That would have stopped the planned launch of NASA's OSIRIS-REx probe to the asteroid Bennu from nearby SLC 41.

Lieutenant Colonel Greg Lindsey of the 45th Mission Support Group at Cape Canaveral writes a fascinating account of how his group and others responded to the incident. If you only read one reference story in this article, read Emergency management: A behind the scenes look on the Eastern Range.

SpaceX will be grounded for an undetermined period. Other launch providers are looking to take advantage of SpaceX's downtime.

American company United Launch Alliance (ULA) said it has 1 or more slots open in 2017 on its Atlas V rocket. The company also announced a new program called RapidLaunch. ULA will build rockets without having customers for them, something they've never done before. This will get a new customer's payload into space in about 3 months, as opposed to the usual 2-3 years.

For more about ULA’s plans, read the story at SpaceNews, ULA says it could accommodate additional Atlas 5 launch next year.

Arianespace of Europe says a number of satellite operators have asked about open slots. Although the company said they only have 1 slot available for a large satellite launch by 2018, they're looking at ways of accommodating more customers.

Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel wants to work out a solution with other launch providers. That includes shifting a launch to a competitor's rocket, something that Arianespace did last year.

Mr. Israel also took a shot at SpaceX for the way the American company continually changes its rocket, saying they over-innovate and sometimes end up with an unstable system.

For more, read the story at Via Satellite, After SpaceX-Amos 6 loss, Arianespace sees demand surge.

Competition from ULA and Arianespace isn't all SpaceX has to worry about. An article at the Los Angeles Times, SpaceX faces a more crowded rocket launch market, even when it returns to flight, points out that other competitors, big and small, private and government-supported, are gearing up to grab a piece of the commercial launch market.

Mr. Israel isn't the only one who questions the way SpaceX is building its launch program. Unlike more conservative competitors, SpaceX tries to make big jumps. When they succeed, it's great. When they don't succeed....

The website Parabolic Arc takes a close look at SpaceX's unorthodox methodology in the article SpaceX: Giant leaps, deep troughs, but no plateaus.

Is SpaceX learning from their failures? Recent comments from the company's president, Gwynne Shotwell, might make a person wonder.

Shotwell is quoted in an article at Business Insider as saying the company anticipates flying again by November. Experienced space experts quoted in the article, SpaceX is 'unlikely' to start launching rockets again as quickly as it has said, doubt that it can be done unless the company can identify and fix the problem quickly. At this point, that seems unlikely.

It's a strange comment from someone who's been in the space business a while.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether SpaceX is pushing too hard. They're trying to recycle rockets. They're cutting out steps in the process to speed up launches. They're building a human-rated capsule to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. They want to send a Dragon capsule to land on Mars in the next couple of years.

Is it just too much for Elon Musk's team to handle?

More to come.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

SpaceX accident bad news for space industry, including Canada


Fact: Sometimes rockets blow up. Unusual fact: Rockets generally don't explode while they're fuelling up for a static test fire.

That's what happened to a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last Thursday at Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40. The company was preparing for a launch of AMOS-6, a satellite from Israeli company Spacecom, when the accident occurred.

Within seconds, a fireball consumed the rocket, as the following video shows. (5:39)

Here's a roundup of relevant stories about the incident and the effect it could have on the space industry, including upcoming Canadian launches.

SpaceX will pay a price for what happened. They lost a rocket and a payload, the launch pad was damaged (how much damage is unknown at this time), and their reputation for reliability has taken a hit. At this point they must be hoping that the investigation shows the problem was with the launch pad and not the rocket.

But SpaceX isn’t the only one taking a hit. Their commercial customers are, too.

The loss of AMOS-6 could scuttle Spacecom's recent deal to sell the company to Beijing Xinwei Technology Group. The deal was contingent on AMOS-6 going into service.

Spacecom updated their status in a conference call on Sunday, as reported in an article at Fortune.

Other SpaceX customers, like Iridium Satellite Communications of McLean, Virginia, and SES of Luxembourg, may need to put a hold on planned launches. Eutelsat Communications of Paris said in a press release that they’ll lose up to US$56 million in revenue due to the satellite’s loss.

Also potentially affected are SpaceX launches for NASA, including cargo runs to the International Space Station (ISS), and NASA’s commercial crew program. SpaceX was one of the 2 companies selected to take astronauts to the ISS in 2018.

For more details, read the story at SpaceNews, Falcon 9 explosion could have ripple effects across space industry.

That ripple effect could be trouble for Canada, too.

According to a story at the Globe and Mail, Explosion of SpaceX rocket rattles global space industry, the Canadian Space Agency is planning on launching the RADARSAT Constellation on a Falcon 9. Telesat of Ottawa also has 2 satellite launches planned with SpaceX.

This is the second significant loss for SpaceX in the past 15 months. In June 2015, a SpaceX rocket taking supplies to the International Space Station was lost.

In their desire to cut costs and speed up the launch process, SpaceX does things other launch companies don't do, according to an article at Space.com, Falcon 9 pad explosion highlights unique aspect of SpaceX launch campaigns. Critics say SpaceX is trying to do too much, too fast.

Eric Berger at Ars Technica echos that perspective with his analysis, Op-ed: We love you SpaceX, and we hope you reach Mars. But we need you to focus.

According to Berger, SpaceX gets up to 85% of its revenue from NASA, and that's where the company should focus its attention.

OldSpace companies like United Launch Alliance and Ariane have been criticized for not changing their ways fast enough. Maybe they're moving slower because they learned something from their own early problems.

And maybe newcomers to the launch industry should pay closer attention to the lessons the old hands learned the hard way.