The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) voted today to adopt its final report on the October 31, 2014 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) accident that killed one of the spaceplane's two pilots. The Board agreed to 17 findings and 10 recommendations, along with a statement of probable cause that focused on the failure of Scaled Composites to "consider and protect against" the possibility that a single human error could doom the vehicle and its crew.
SS2 broke apart during a flight test over the Mojave Desert killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury. The pilot, Peter Siebold, survived after being thrown clear of the spaceplane unconscious. He regained consciousness during the fall to Earth and was able to detach himself from his seat and his parachute opened automatically.
It was immediately evident from telemetry and cockpit video that Alsbury had prematurely moved one of two levers that activate a feathering system intended to slow the spaceplane during descent, creating aerodynamic instability that tore the plane apart. Why he did so and why the feathering system deployed even though the second lever was not activated were among the subjects of the investigation.
The findings and recommendations span a wide range of concerns about government and private sector actions, many of which were leveled at the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), but the statement of probable cause is aimed at Scaled, which built SS2 and was in charge of the test flight.
The NTSB staff's version said the probable cause was that Alsbury prematurely unlocked the feathering system as the result of time pressure and vibration and loads he had not experienced recently. It added as a contributing factor Scaled's failure to consider the possibility that a single human error could cause the feathering system to deploy at the wrong time and to adequately warn pilots of that risk.
NTSB chairman Christopher Hart proposed a revised version that swapped those sentences, placing Scaled's failure first and identifying Alsbury's actions as a consequent result. During a brief recess, the staff and Board members wrote a third version that was thereupon adopted:
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was Scaled Composites' failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard to the SpaceShipTwo vehicle. This failure set the stage for the copilot’s premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced, which led to uncommanded feather extension and the subsequent aerodynamic overload and in-flight break up of the vehicle.
Hart was acting NTSB chairman at the time of the accident and was on-site at Mojave Air and Space Port during the initial stages of the investigation and provided the press briefings.
One focus of the investigation was the training the pilots received including human factors and the information formally conveyed to them by Scaled about the dangers of premature deployment of the feathering system. The NTSB found that the copilot (Alsbury) was experiencing high workload as a result of recalling tasks from memory while performing under time pressure and with vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced, which increased the possibility for errors. NTSB found that Scaled "did not ensure that pilots correctly understood the risks of unlocking the feather early" and missed opportunities to mitigate against the consequences of human error in its design.
The NTSB also found that AST's evaluations of Scaled were "deficient" because they did not recognize that Scaled had not identified the potential human-error hazards. The NTSB also found that a lack of direct communications between the AST and Scaled technical staffs, pressure to approve experimental applications within 120 days, and other factors interfered with AST's evaluation process. Questions also arose about why AST granted a waiver to Scaled in July 2013, which the company did not request, regarding required hazard analysis that did not meet requirements for human and software errors.
The NTSB has posted a synopsis of its findings and recommendations.
UPDATE, July 28, 2015, 8:10 am EDT: The Aerospace Industries Association issued a press release praising the Senate action and urging the House to follow suit.
ORIGINAL POST, July 27, 2015, 11:28 pm EDT: The Senate tonight adopted an amendment to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank as part of a Highway Trust Fund reauthorization bill. House Republican leaders stated earlier today, however, that they will not bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote.
The amendment, offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on behalf of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), has been the source of bitter contention with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other conservatives who consider the bank to be "corporate welfare." The bank assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products, and advocates insist that without it American exports will suffer and jobs will be lost. The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.
The bank's authority to operate ended on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed. The bank can continue current operations, but cannot take on new projects until and unless it is reauthorized.
The Kirk amendment would extend its authorization for four years. Yesterday the Senate voted 67-26 to allow the amendment to be offered. Tonight the vote was 64-29 to adopt it. The Senate has yet to vote on the underlying bill. Even assuming that it passes, its fate is far from certain.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) vowed today that the House will not take up the Senate bill. The House and Senate disagree not only on the Ex-Im Bank issue, but on the underlying highway bill that allows disbursement of funds from the Highway Trust Fund for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects. The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires on Friday, July 31. The House is scheduled to begin its August recess on Friday, so some type of agreement will have to be made - perhaps a short term extension. The House already passed a 5 month extension of the highway bill -- without an Ex-Im Bank provision -- and McCarthy wants the Senate to pass that bill, not the version now before the Senate.
What happens next is anyone's guess.
The Senate took a small, but important, step towards potentially reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank during a rare Sunday session today. The action does not reauthorize the bank, but sets up a vote on an amendment to do just that later in the week, perhaps as early as tomorrow (Monday).
The Export-Import Bank, created in 1934, assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products such as communications satellites. The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among those trying to convince Congress to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank. Its authority to operate expired on June 30 when previous efforts at reauthorization failed. The bank may continue existing operations for now, but cannot take on new projects.
The issue is divisive within both the Republican and Democratic parties. Advocates argue that without the bank, exports of American goods will suffer and jobs will be lost. Opponents insist that it is corporate welfare. Boeing and General Electric are frequent targets of those critics because they reportedly received two-thirds of the bank's loan commitments between 2007 and 2013, but advocates, including President Obama, counter that smaller companies also benefit, including those that are suppliers to the big companies.
To expedite action, the Senate voted today to allow Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to offer an amendment to an unrelated highway bill later this week. The highway bill is "must pass" legislation because without it funds from the Highway Trust Fund cannot be disbursed to pay for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects. That bill also is controversial. It is far from certain that even if the Senate does pass the highway bill, with the Ex-Im bank reauthorization included, that the House will agree with either of those actions. The House is scheduled to begin its month-long August recess on Friday, with last votes expected no later than 3:00 pm ET on Thursday.
That gives the Senate only a few days to pass its bill and try to reach a compromise with the House in order to send legislation to the President' before the Highway Trust Fund authorization expires on July 31.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a strident opponent of the bank and on Friday publicly accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) of lying to him and other Senate Republicans about the issue in a blistering statement on the Senate floor (which is available on YouTube). Such intra-party disputes are not typically aired in front of the C-SPAN cameras.
The procedural vote today to allow Kirk to offer the amendment was 67-26 (60 votes were needed). Cruz and 25 other Republicans voted against it.
That does not signal what the fate of the amendment itself will be when it is finally debated, however. Some of those who voted to allow the amendment to be offered may nonetheless oppose the amendment itself. At the moment, the Kirk amendment is on the schedule for tomorrow (Monday, July 27), along with several other amendments.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has a useful report explaining the Ex-Im Bank controversy.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will meet in public session on Tuesday, July 28, to deliberate and vote on its report on the probable cause of the October 31, 2014 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash. The meeting begins at 9:30 am ET and will be webcast on the NTSB website.
The NTSB ordinarily has five members, but there is one vacancy at the moment. The Tuesday meeting is an opportunity for all four members to hear from the NTSB staff at the same time about their findings, conclusions and recommendations. The Board members have had access to factual reports and draft staff reports already, but this is the formal unveiling and opportunity for debate. The Board will vote to adopt or modify the staff's draft. The Board can make changes to the recommendations, although an NTSB spokesman told SpacePolicyOnline. com on Friday that typically they add or suggest rewordings to staff-developed recommendations rather than making wholesale changes.
The NTSB does not hold public meetings for all of its hundreds of investigations every year, but only for those of significant public interest. NTSB chairman Christopher Hart, who was acting chairman at the time of the SS2 crash, pointed out that this is the first spaceflight accident it has investigated. He was on-site at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, CA, where the crash occurred for the initial phase of the investigation and provided the public briefings.
The factual documents produced by the staff will be made public on Tuesday at 9:00 am ET, half an hour before the meeting. They will be posted on the NTSB website. Parties to NTSB investigations have access to NTSB's factual documents during the investigation, but are not allowed to speak about them until the NTSB adopts its report. The parties may submit their own documents responding to the NTSB's findings both before and after the NTSB adopts the final report that are also made part of the public record, but the parties do not address the Board at the public meeting. In this case, the parties include the FAA, Scaled Composites, and Virgin Galactic.
This is the final action by the Board, although it is possible for a party to file a petition for reconsideration if new, relevant information becomes available that has the potential to change the probable cause.
The technical cause of the crash was evident almost immediately. SS2 co-pilot Michael Alsbury, who died in the crash, prematurely moved one of two levers that activate a feathering system intended to slow the spaceplane during descent. Why he did so and why the feathering system deployed even though the second lever was not activated are among the subjects of the investigation.
SS2 was built by Scaled Composites for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which plans to send tourists on suborbital space flights using these spaceplanes. The company planned to build five of them. The one destroyed on October 31 was the first and only operational spaceplane. A second spaceplane was already under construction and that is continuing although the date for a test flight is uncertain. Virgin Galactic President George Whitesides said in January that the company will "recover, we'll learn the hard lessons from the accident, and return to flight." The company is also developing a version of its system, LauncherOne, that will be used to launch small satellites instead of people.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 26-31, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress is in session this week.
During the Week
The House is scheduled to begin its annual August recess on Friday (no votes are scheduled after Thursday at 3:00 pm ET), so this is the last week for Congress to deal with any "must pass" legislation for programs expiring at the end of July. To that end, the Senate is beginning its week today, Sunday, in a continuing attempt to pass a bill to reauthorize expenditures from the Highway Trust Fund for highway, highway safety, and public transportation programs that otherwise will expire on July 31. While the highway bill per se is not a space-related issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has agreed to allow an amendment to be offered to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. Last month, Congress failed to reauthorize the bank and its charter expired. The bank is still operating, but cannot take on new projects. The bank offers loan guarantees for customers wanting to buy products -- like communications satellites -- from U.S. manufacturers and the Aerospace Industries Association and Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters. Critics claim it is corporate welfare. The issue splits both parties and has the Senate in turmoil. Even if a bill does pass the Senate, there is no guarantee the House will go along. The Senate is scheduled to be in session during the first week of August, but if the House recesses as planned, it would not be able to pass a compromise until it returns in September, so the Senate would have to agree to something the House already passed, perhaps a short-term extension for the highway funds and/or the Ex-Im Bank. What will happen is very much up in the air.
With such disarray, the likelihood of other legislation passing is diminished, but it is always possible that relatively non-controversial bills could get through. One possibility is the Senate Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, S. 1297, which was formally reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday (S. Rept. 114-88). Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is the main sponsor of the bill, however, and his verbal attack on McConnell on the Senate floor on Friday because of the Ex-Im bank issue (available on YouTube) might weigh against it getting a spot on the calendar, which McConnell controls. It really is anyone's guess, though.
This is "NAC week" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. Many of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committees will meet early in the week, with the full NAC meeting Wednesday afternoon through Friday morning. The committee and Council meetings are available by WebEx and telephone for anyone who wants to listen in. Bear in mind that times listed on the agendas are in local time at the meeting venue -- Pacific Daylight Time in this case.
On Tuesday, trying to tune into those meetings will compete with three interesting events in Washington, DC: the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB's) public meeting to finalize its report on the October 2014 SpaceShipTwo crash beginning at 9:30 am ET; a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing at 10:00 am ET on planetary exploration -- including testimony from the Principal Investigators for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres (Alan Stern and Christopher Russell, respectively); and a NOAA briefing at 1:00 pm ET on 10 Years Since Hurricane Katrina featuring NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan and the heads of NOAA's four line offices, including Steve Volz, who is in charge of NOAA's satellite programs. All three events are available by webcast or WebEx.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.
Monday-Tuesday, July 27-28
Monday-Wednesday, July 27-29
Monday-Friday, July 27-31
Tuesday, July 28
Tuesday-Wednesday, July 28-29
Wednesday-Friday, July 29-31
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft not only took fascinating photos of Pluto as it approached and flew past the dwarf planet 10 days ago, but continued snapping pictures as it raced away on the other side. Today NASA released a photo showing Pluto's silhouette as the spacecraft looked back towards the Sun.
The artistically stunning image is full of scientific data. As Michael Summers, a co-investigator on the mission from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA pointed out at a briefing this afternoon, it is the first image of Pluto's atmosphere and shows a "haze" that reaches out 80 miles (130 kilometers) from the surface -- much higher than anticipated. The photo was taken when New Horizons was 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto around midnight July 15 Eastern Daylight Time and delivered to Earth yesterday. North is at the top of the frame.
That Pluto has an atmosphere is no surprise -- scientists have studied it for years, measuring its density using stellar occultation. Early results from the New Horizons data, however, indicate that in the past two years, the atmosphere has lost half its mass, Summers said. The rapidity of the loss is unexpected, but not that the atmosphere would dissipate. As Principal Investigator Alan Stern from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) reminded the audience today, concern that the atmosphere would collapse -- "freeze out" -- as Pluto's 248-year orbit takes it further from Sun was one factor in NASA's approval of the mission in the early 2000s. (The New York Times published an account of the hurdles the New Horizons mission had to overcome to win support after an earlier version was cancelled in 2000 because the cost rose too high.)
Jim Green, NASA's planetary science division director, explained that only 5 percent of the data captured by New Horizons during its close approach to Pluto and its five moons has been returned to Earth so far. At a maximum data rate of 4 kilobits/second, it will take 16 months for all of it to be collected. A number of new images were released today, but no more will come until mid-September. For the next several weeks, the focus will be on sending back data taken by other instruments on the spacecraft.
Among the other images made public today is a higher resolution photo of Pluto's surface, shown in false color to highlight differences in surface characteristics. The image was taken when New Horizons was 280,000 miles (450,00 kilometers) from the planet. The resolution is 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers).
At today's briefing, though, Cathy Olkin from SwRI and William McKinnon of Washington University in St. Louis offered theories to explain the data returned so far. Some of the surface is geologically young, due perhaps to flows of nitrogen-, methane-, and carbon monoxide-ice moving around on the surface as water glaciers do on Earth, from ice upwelling from beneath the surface, or ice falling from the atmosphere as it freezes. Some scientists are postulating that Pluto has an internal heat source and there may even be a liquid ocean under the icy crust as has been observed on other solar system bodies. McKinnon advanced that theory today, but stressed that there is no evidence of such an ocean so far.
Pluto's five moons also are being avidly studied using the New Horizons data, especially Charon, the largest. Stern, in fact, refers to Pluto and Charon as a "double planet" system because the center of mass around which they orbit each other (the "barycenter") is in space, between the two objects, not within Pluto. (The barycenter of the Earth-Moon system is about 1,000 miles or 1,600 kilometers below the Earth's surface.)
Stern enthused that "we've never been to a double planet system before" and it is a "scientific wonderland." Data from that wonderland will be making its way to scientists over the next year and a half, and analysis will continue long after that. As Stern himself cautioned in the days before the spacecraft reached Pluto, "science on the fly is often wrong."
New Horizons was built and is operated by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Laurel, MD under contract to NASA.
The spacecraft is currently 7.6 million miles (12.2 million kilometers) beyond Pluto heading deeper into the Kuiper Belt that surrounds our solar system. Stern estimated earlier that the spacecraft will operate for another 20 years until its radioactive power source runs out. It is possible that it can be targeted to visit another object in the Kuiper Belt during that time. Pluto is in the Kuiper Belt, along with another dwarf planet, Eris.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is in charge of designating solar system bodies as planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, or other types of objects based on characteristics defined by consensus by the astronomical community. In addition to Pluto and Eris, Makemake, Haumea and Ceres are categorized as dwarf planets today. Another NASA mission, Dawn, is currently orbiting Ceres, which is in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
While not the same type of space policy pronouncements made by other presidential contenders, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) expounded on his views of the fictional Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard in an interview with the New York Times published on Thursday.
As a Senator, Cruz has made clear that he believes NASA should focus on space exploration, not earth science and that he is an advocate for commercial space. He chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which sets policy and authorizes funding for NASA.
Turns out he is also a Star Trek fan with strong views on whether Kirk or Picard is the better character.
In an interview with Ana Marie Cox, Cruz called Kirk "working class" and a "passionate fighter for justice" as compared to Picard, an "aristocrat" and "cerebral philosopher." He prefers Kirk, adding that he thinks Kirk would be a Republican and Picard a Democrat.
The rather odd exchange did not add much to the knowledge base of what Cruz would do with the space program if he becomes President, but it was fun.
Two other presidential candidates, Jeb Bush (R) and Hillary Clinton (D) have expressed their enthusiastic support for NASA. Bush was governor of Florida, home of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, for eight years. Clinton wanted to be an astronaut when she was 14.
UPDATE, July 23: Later reports said the solar array deployed just before docking, not at docking.
UPDATE, July 22, 2015 11:01 pm EDT: Soyuz TMA-17M docked with the ISS as scheduled. The port solar array did not deploy during the trip to ISS, but did upon docking.
ORIGINAL STORY, July 22, 2015, 6:50 pm EDT: Three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS) lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:02 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) today, July 22, 2015 (which was 3:02 am July 23 local time at the launch site). Once in orbit, one of the two solar panels on the Soyuz TMA-17M spacecraft did not deploy, but NASA says that will not affect the scheduled docking with the ISS at 10:46 pm EDT tonight.
NASA calls this mission Soyuz 43S because it is the 43rd Soyuz launched to the ISS. In a statement that was posted on its ISS website at about 6:30 pm EDT, NASA said "The Soyuz 43S vehicle has achieved a stable orbit ... and all antennas have deployed. However, the port solar array ... has not deployed." It added that the starboard array deployed as expected. With no explanation, however, by 6:45 pm EDT NASA had edited that statement to delete any reference to the solar arrays, saying only that the antennas had deployed.
Assuming all goes as planned, the three Soyuz TMA-17M crew -- Kjell Lindgren (U.S.), Kimiya Yui (Japan), and Oleg Kononeko (Russia) -- will join Scott Kelly (U.S.), Mikhail Kornienko (Russia), and Gennady Padalka (Russia) who are already on the ISS. Kelly, Kornienko and Padalka arrived in late March and have been the only three aboard since June 11 when the Soyuz TMA-15M crew returned to Earth. Kelly and Kornienko are embarked on a one-year mission during which time they will see several crew changes; Padalka will return to Earth in September. Typical ISS crews remain for 4-6 month shifts. Kelly and Kornienko are staying for a year to enable studies of longer duration missions on human physiology and psychology in preparation for eventual trips to Mars.
The landing of the TMA-15M crew, and the launch of the TMA-17M crew, were each delayed by the failure of the Russian Progress M-27M cargo ship in April. Russian engineers ultimately decided the Progress M-27M failure was due to a "design peculiarity." The next in the series, Progress M-28M, was successfully launched on July 3. The robotic Progress cargo spacecraft and crewed Soyuz spacecraft use different versions of the Soyuz rocket, but the successful Progress M-28M launch helped restore confidence in the Russian systems.
The United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries (through the European Space Agency) are partners in the ISS program. The ISS has been permanently occupied since November 2000 by international crews on rotating shifts.
Check back here later for updates.
UPDATE, July 28, 2015: GAO has now released the full text of its decision. A link is provided below.
ORIGINAL STORY, July 21, 2015. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied a bid protest by Ball Aerospace against NASA's award of a contract to Orbital ATK to build spacecraft for NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). Details of GAO's ruling have not been released, but the decision to deny Ball's protest was issued on July 16.
Ralph White, GAO's Managing Associate General Counsel for Procurement Law told SpacePolicyOnline.com that the decision is covered by a protective order and GAO is waiting for the parties to "promptly" identify any information that cannot be publicly released. Once they have received those replies, a redacted version of the decision will be released to the public.
In an emailed statement, White explained that Ball argued that Orbital ATK's "lower-priced, but lower-rated proposal" should not have won because it "violated the terms of the solicitation" and the proposal evaluation "was unreasonable." GAO found "no basis to sustain the protest," however. He also said that the delivery order to Orbital ATK is valued at $470 million "while Ball's price for the spacecraft was significantly higher."
JPSS is NOAA's new polar-orbiting weather satellite system, designed for the civil sector after the NOAA-DOD-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program was cancelled due to years of schedule delays and cost overruns. JPSS is a NOAA program, but NASA is the satellite procurement agent for NOAA and thus the JPSS contract is controlled by NASA.
To accelerate the availability of JPSS-1, NASA awarded a sole source contract to Ball Aerospace to build another spacecraft similar to that used for NASA's Suomi-NPP, which is now in orbit. JPSS-1 is scheduled for launch in 2017.
This contract is for JPSS-2, with options for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4. Congress is providing full funding for JPSS-1 and JPSS-2, but is less enthusiastic about funding JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, which is called the Polar Follow On (PFO) in NOAA's FY2016 budget request. NOAA is requesting $380 million for PFO in FY2016. The House zeroed the request in its version of the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill. The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $135 million.
JPSS-2, however, is in fine shape budgetarily. NOAA wants to launch it no later than the fourth quarter of FY2021. NASA awarded the contract to Orbital ATK on March 24, 2015, but work was suspended on April 8 after Ball filed its protest. NASA spokesman Stephen Cole said that NASA notified Orbital ATK on July 17 that the suspension was lifted and directed the company to resume work.
The contract is valued at $253 million for JPSS-2 and $217 million for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4 options. Orbital ATK will design and fabricate the spacecraft, integrate government-furnished instruments, conduct satellite-level testing and support in-orbit check-out and mission operations, the company said when the contract was awarded in March. The spacecraft is based on the LEOStar-3 platform used for several NASA satellites, including Fermi, Swift, Landsat-8, and ICESAT-2, as well as commercial imaging and defense satellites.
Orbital ATK Space Systems Group Director of Communications Vicki Cox said today that the company is resuming work pursuant to NASA's direction and looks forward to providing "critical weather forecasting data for the next several decades."
Ball Aerospace Media Relations Manager Roz Brown said via email that while the company is "obviously disappointed" with the result, it appreciates the GAO review process. She added that the company has the option of asking for reconsideration after reviewing the public version of the decision, but "we have no present intention to ask" for it. She also said that the company hopes to have the public version in a week to 10 days.
On July 28, GAO released the full text of its decision.
For more on NOAA's satellite programs, see our fact sheet "NOAA's FY2016 Budget Request for Satellites."
SpaceX’s Elon Musk told reporters during a media teleconference that preliminary conclusions point to an upper stage strut that “broke free” as the likely cause of the Falcon 9 failure on June 28. He did not state when the rocket would return to flight, only that it would not be before September.
Musk said that initial assessments point to the failure of a metal strut inside the rocket’s upper stage as the likely cause of the explosion that destroyed a Dragon spacecraft carrying cargo bound for the International Space Station (ISS). It was the company’s seventh operational cargo resupply mission for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract – SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7. (Musk and other SpaceX officials use "second stage" and "upper stage" synonymously when referring to the segment that failed.)
Musk explained that the steel struts are designed to hold high-pressure helium bottles inside the upper stage’s liquid oxygen tank, but that one of them snapped while the stage was accelerating. When the strut broke, the helium bottle “shot to the top of the tank at high speed,” overpressurizing the tank and likely causing the explosion.
The strut, which is provided by a supplier that Musk did not want to name to avoid unnecessary “recrimination,” failed at 2,000 lbs of thrust - five times below what it is designed to withstand. SpaceX has been able to replicate the failure, conducting tests on thousands of these struts and finding that a few others snapped at a point far below their rated force level. As a result, Musk said SpaceX will move to individual testing of each strut independent of outside certification. This, he said, will result in a cost increase, but not “of a significant amount” so that the price of the vehicle should remain unaffected.
Musk said that the failed strut was the “most probable, but not definitive outcome” of the ongoing investigation, noting that there is still work to do. Investigators are still puzzling over telemetry data that shows a drop in helium pressure, and then a rise back to starting pressure, something he described as “quite confusing.” Analysis is ongoing.
The investigation also revealed that if the Dragon had deployed its parachutes before falling into the ocean, the spacecraft would have survived. The software in this cargo version of Dragon (Dragon 1), Musk explained, is inert on ascent and was not programmed to release the parachute in the event of a failure. Software in the version of Dragon under development for taking people into space (Dragon 2 or Crew Dragon) is programmed to do just that. Musk said they would be working on software fixes to ensure that the Dragon 1 cargo spacecraft can do what it needs to survive. “We could have saved Dragon if we had the right software there,” he said.
Musk said SpaceX customers, including NASA and the U.S. Air Force, had been briefed and were very supportive, indicating “no diminished faith in SpaceX.”
He indicated that return to flight would happen no sooner than September and that who the next customer will be is not clear. While addressing the strut issue is “fairly straightforward” Musk said he wants to ensure the issue is diagnosed correctly and that flights do not resume without everyone being “on board” with the changes. In a press release issued after the media teleconference, the company said it expects to "return to flight this fall and fly all the customers we intended to fly in 2015 by the end of the year."
This was SpaceX’s first launch failure in seven years, and the only one for the majority of its 4,000 employees who joined the company during that time. Musk noted that to some degree the company became “a little bit complacent,” and that this failure was an “important lesson” moving forward.
SpaceX said in its press release that the failure was "regrettable," but the review process ultimately will "yield a safer and more reliable launch vehicle."