Analysis SpaceX's perfect delivery record to the International Space Station ended on Sunday, 139 seconds into the flight of its Falcon 9 rocket. But there are good reasons why Elon's Musketeers will be back on schedule far faster than many are predicting.
The accident itself was a disaster, and a very unfortunate birthday present for Elon Musk, who turned 44 that day. It had been hoped he'd celebrate by seeing the first-ever landing of a Falcon rocket on SpaceX's landing barge Of Course I Still Love You. Instead he got fireworks of a different persuasion.
Here's what we know so far about the accident. The rocket completed static testing and was raised into position loaded up with around 4,000lbs (1,814kg) of cargo, including a lot of equipment that was intended to replace material that was lost when Orbital Sciences' commercial resupply rocket blew up last October.
The liftoff went perfectly and the ground crew was getting ready for first stage separation as the rocket reached 44.9 kilometers of altitude and a speed of 4,733kph, when the upper half appeared to bloom and contact was lost.
At that point, the ground crew commentary went silent, which is to be expected. SpaceX has the same procedures as NASA in the event of an accident – lock the doors, backup the data, get everyone to work, and no speculation until the facts are known.
These procedures were rehearsed and set in stone even before the first Falcon's flight, and they're good scientific practice. Musk himself took to social media to provide the first details that SpaceX was positive about, tweeting that: "There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause."
Cause still unknown after several thousand engineering-hours of review. Now parsing data with a hex editor to recover final milliseconds.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 29, 2015
The advantages of single-source suppliers
There are going to be a few sleepless nights at SpaceX in the coming days as engineers and designers go through the sensor data piece by piece. Musk is known for working his staff hard and this problem needs to be sorted out quickly.
And it will be, because unlike NASA, SpaceX has a huge advantage in dealing with problems. NASA rockets are put together using machinery from hodgepodge of private contractors, all with their own design and build teams – and their own internal politics, not to mention dealing with national politicians with an axe to grind.
When the Space Shuttle Challenger went boom in 1986, it took the Rogers Commission nearly six months to come to a conclusion about what went wrong – and it might have taken longer if the renowned physicist Richard Feynman hadn't been on the team to chivvy things along and occasionally point out the obvious.
All this effort culminated in the report that identified serious problems with the O-rings sealing the shuttle's external solid fuel rockets. But it also revealed that Allan McDonald, director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project for the contractor Morton Thiokol, had already expressed such concern about the O-rings that he'd refused to sign the launch recommendation for Challenger's mission.
McDonald spoke out in the investigation and was removed from his job by his employers and demoted before eventually being cleared of any wrongdoing, vindicated, and reinstated. But his fate showed the problems involved in dealing with contractors.
SpaceX doesn't have those issues; it's a single company that conceived, designed, built, and flies the Falcon rockets. Finding fault is going to be a lot easier under such circumstances because there's a single data set and everyone knows everyone else.
The company is packed with highly motivated individuals and has a very flat management structure. Mistakes made are owned up to, and when the issue that caused the loss of the Falcon is identified, you can bet it will be dealt with quickly.
The current SpaceX resupply missions are on hold while this process is worked through. But you're not going to see the kind of dithering that left the Space Shuttles grounded for 32 long months. If I were a betting man I'd guess the next Falcon will fly in 32 weeks, and maybe sooner.
Getting into space is a tough business. There are few rocket systems that haven't had a failure at one time or another. While SpaceX is smarting from this first failure to deliver, the company is going to come back with a vengeance. ®