Although the world is awfully excited about Elon Musk’s announcement this week that he’ll be selling tickets to Mars, there are other pressing issues facing SpaceX, such as the cause of the Sept. 1 explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and much of its launch pad.
The day that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 exploded on the launch pad during testing, I sent several questions to Space and Missile Systems Center, the folks who buy, build and manage the launches of America’s national security satellites. They are a careful bunch and have a long history of replying slowly, if at all, to reporters’ queries. They’ve improved quite a bit recently under Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, but my questions clearly required a very through scrub. I got the replies Tuesday evening this week.
Question 1: Given the anomaly, are we concerned about assured access to space on both the Vandenberg and CCAFS bases?
SMC: At this time, there is no impact to assured access to space from this anomaly. Presidential policy and U.S. law require assured access to space via two launch vehicle families. This is currently provided by the United Launch Alliance Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles. The SpaceX Falcon 9 was recently certified to launch about half of the National Security Space payloads. If Falcon 9 is grounded for an extended period of time, the Air Force will investigate all options to maintain assured access to space.
Question 2: Considering the repeated anomalies SpaceX has had, are we looking at re-examining their certification?
SMC: SpaceX remains certified and can compete for upcoming EELV competitive launch service contracts. The certifying official, the Space and Missile Systems Center Commander (Lt. Gen. Greaves), has the authority to maintain certification or to decertify. The Air Force will follow the anomaly resolution closely and will continue to evaluate. The Falcon 9 Launch System has demonstrated 27 successful missions. Every launch—whether successful or not—undergoes a thorough post-flight review. More detailed investigations are performed for any flight conditions that differ from nominal predictions.
Question 3: Are we worried about using the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy for NSS missions?
SMC 3: The Air Force has high confidence in SpaceX’s capabilities based on their 27 successful launches and ongoing certification activities. The Air Force will continue working with SpaceX to ensure confidence in the safe and reliable launch of critical National Security Space satellites.
SMC may well have held their reply until SpaceX issued its first detailed update Sept. 23 on the “anomaly” that caused the explosion. The all-important search for what engineers call the root cause of the explosion has not ended.
Here’s what SpaceX said:
“The Accident Investigation Team (AIT), composed of SpaceX, the FAA, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and industry experts, are currently scouring through approximately 3,000 channels of engineering data along with video, audio and imagery. The timeline of the event is extremely short – from first signs of an anomaly to loss of data is about 93 milliseconds or less than 1/10th of a second. The majority of debris from the incident has been recovered, photographed, labeled and catalogued, and is now in a hangar for inspection and use during the investigation.
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. [Updated 09/24: At this time, the cause of the potential breach remains unknown.]”
The other important detail to note is that SpaceX says “substantial areas of the (launch) pad systems were affected.” However, supporting systems were not damaged and the pad’s control systems are “in relatively good condition.” SpaceX is also close to completing work on another launch pad.
Pull all of that together and you’ve got an Air Force that remains cautiously optimistic about SpaceX’s ability to launch National Security Space payloads. Given the enormous political and legal pressure Elon Musk has kept on the military to open up its launches to his company, combined with the political pressure to abandon the highly reliable Russian RD-180 rocket engines that power the Atlas V rockets now used for most NSS launches, I think it’s certain SMC will stick with Space X, barring a serious systemic problem associated with the latest explosion.