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This week in space: Boeing challenges Musk, Bezos to a ‘Mars-off’ while SpaceX investigates destroyed rocket

There’s a new, private space race on. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg means to ride his dark horse straight to Mars, beating NASA, Elon Musk, and everybody else to the Red Planet. Bloomberg reports that Muilenberg, speaking at the Atlantic’s “What’s Next” conference in Chicago, said he’s “convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket.”

But Jeff Bezos doesn’t mean to be outdone. Blue Origin ran a successful test of its New Shepard crew escape pod this week, and did better than anyone expected. “Today, we’re likely going to lose the New Shepard booster,” Ariane Cornell had said on the Blue Origin webcast a bit before liftoff. “Today’s [Wednesday’s] mission is totally focused on a successful crew capsule escape with the understanding that the booster will likely be lost.” But they managed to land the booster upright with a powered descent to a pad, with nothing more than a list to the side and a little bit of singeing at the edges.

While it might be tempting to speculate on the motives that frenemies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin or ULA might have to sabotage SpaceX, not even SpaceX thinks someone sniped their rocket. Company president Gwynne Shotwell addressed the 2016 Asia-Pacific Satellite Communications Council in Kuala Lumpur this week about what SpaceX has been up to lately, SpaceNews.com reports. While reassuring everyone that SpaceX has it together with regards to their ongoing operations, Shotwell dropped a few choice sound bites about the original September 1 kaboom.

Shotwell appears to be pretty confident about its source. SpaceNews quotes her as commenting that “We believe that the composite over wrapped pressure vessel [the helium bottle], known as a COPv, let go in the tank.” She explained that the whole rocket is bristling with accelerometers, which let investigators find out exactly where in the rocket the disturbance began. That’s how they know it wasn’t a bullet. It probably wasn’t a design flaw with the bottle, either, and it also probably wasn’t ground systems responsible for the failure of the pressure vessel. Shotwell is pretty sure “operations” was the source, but didn’t get less vague than that. “Let go,” though, suggests a blowout.

For reference, the above is what happens when a composite overwrapped pressure vessel “lets go.” It’s called delamination. It’s really fun to look at, and really bad for whatever used to be laminated. The image above is from a CNG-fueled car that exploded. Imagine the violence of the decompression event that could blow a composite-wrapped pressure vessel into a shaggy, fuzzy pile of fibers. Now picture something like that happening to a composite-wrapped helium bottle inside the tank of liquid oxygen, perhaps because of a thermal differential between tanks. It would certainly explain the quieter bang a few moments before the massive fireball in the SpaceX incident.

Pressed to address the idea that a “nefarious actor” had tried to take out the rocket, Shotwell remarked that while you can’t ignore anything during such an investigation, no matter how unlikely it might be, “The more-than-likely — the overwhelmingly likely — explanation is that we did something to that rocket. And we’re going to find it and we’re going to fix it.”

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