What does it take to stump the real-life Iron Man? An explosion that wasn’t an explosion, one without an obvious spark or other ignition source.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was supposed to launch its 29th mission in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday September 3, carrying the AMOS-6 telecom satellite. The preceding Thursday morning, engineers were preparing for a static fire test, during which the rocket briefly fires its engines while still “docked” to the launch tower. It’s standard procedure to clear all personnel from the pad during fueling and other such dangerous operations, so even though the strongback is pretty mangled, nobody was hurt. But they were tanking up the Falcon 9 first stage with LOX oxidizer and RP-1 kerosene when something went wrong.
“Still working on the Falcon fireball investigation,” said Musk. “Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years.”
What’s really stumping people is that the fireball went up without an apparent cause. The rocket was nowhere near its ignition sequence. The engines weren’t on, and there shouldn’t have been anything hot enough to cause a deflagration. Because it was hooked up to the strongback by all those cables and hoses, it should have been electrically grounded. And there was a quieter “bang” sound just moments before the fireball. Despite the fact that SpaceX equipment is positively bristling with 3,000 channels worth of sensors and telemetry, nobody knows yet what happened. Some commenters, here and elsewhere, have even suggested sabotage.
The not knowing won’t last long, though. Elon Musk is reaching out to anyone and everyone who has expertise or A/V recordings of the event. And aerospace is a unique environment when it comes to tracking the source of a problem. An engineer who’s afraid of losing his job is much less likely to come forward about an error he knows he committed, especially one that led to the loss of a $60 million rocket and its $200 million payload.
Hopefully SpaceX et al. will hold to these principles, although much will depend on who sues whom and for how much. SpaceX could probably eat the cost of the rocket, but the stakeholders of the AMOS-6 satellite are singing a different tune. The successful installation of AMOS-6 was the linchpin in a nearly $300 million merger between Spacecom, an Israeli communications firm, and the Chinese Xinwei Technology Group. Spacecom apparently didn’t have its satellite insured for disasters that happened before launch. It could sue SpaceX for the sticker price of the satellite, or demand a free ride to space once the replacement satellite and a new, space-worthy rocket are built. Mark Zuckerberg, whose internet.org project was supposed to use AMOS-6, is merely “disappointed.”