Elon Musk points to the almost explosive growth of SpaceX and a years-long string of successful launches as perhaps a contributing factor in the
failure of a resupply mission to the ISS. At almost 3 minutes into the flight, the Falcon 9 rocket exploded, marking the first failure of a SpaceX
rocket since the Falcon 1 failure in August 2008.
Initial telemetry indicated a 'rapid overpressure event' in the oxygen tank of the rocket's second stage. It is now believed that a metal strut
holding a luquid helium tank broke, leading to the overpressure and untimate destruction of the launch vehicle. The strut in question was rated for a
maximum load of 10,000 lbs, but data indicated that the load at the time it broke was only 1/5 of that. SpaceX has said they will now thoroughly
examine every strut in the crafts, and possibly source future components from a new manufacturer.
I generally like Elon Musk. He's really quite an amazing person, even if you only look at his accomplishments. But he's also very human, in that he
doesn't carry himself as being above the rest of us.
SpaceX could have just explained the failure of the strut, and explained what they planned moving forward. But for Musk to have not only realized and
acknowledged a growing complacency in the company, but to also own it publicly and attribute part of the failure to it is simply amazing to me.
When the Colombia tragedy occurred, NASA tore apart every bit of information they had available to determine the cause. Which is what SpaceX did as
well for the recent failure. When NASA finally determined the chain of events that led to the disintegration of the shuttle and the loss of her crew,
they announced it publicly. As I'm sure most of us remember, it was a briefcase-sized chunk of the insulating foam from the luquid fuel tank which
broke away and struck the starboard wing, damaging the heat protection along the leading edge. This allowed super-heated air to breach the skin of the
orbiter during reentry, ultimately causing it to break apart.
NASA then implemented a strict new series of safety measures and design changes for the remaining shuttle missions. This is exactly what is occurring
at SpaceX right now, too.
What NASA did not
do is note the degree to which human error and complacency could have played a part in it. Not that I can recall, anyway. You
see, this was not the first time that the foam insulation had been observed to break free during launch. It also wasn't the first time it was known
to have struck the orbiter after doing so. It wasn't even the first time it involved a piece that size. It was simply the first time that it
mattered. The heat protective tiles on the underside of the orbiter are very low density, and very soft. The spaces between them were basically
stuffed with a woven ceramic material, similar in texture to that of a woven nylon strap. It is a fairly brittle material as well, and always required
repair and replacement of sections after landing.
The Luquid Fuel Tank insulation is also light, and fairly soft, but not made to be particularly heat resistant since it does not leave the atmosphere.
It is around the same hardness as the tiles on the orbiter, as I recall. NASA was obviously aware of the resilience of the extremely critical heat
protection system to physical damage. And they were aware of past occurrences of insulation striking it. But it was decided that there was virtually
no risk from this, so nothing was done. I would say that's human error, personally.
The Falcon 9 rocket was unmanned, and there were no injuries or close calls resulting from the explosion. But honesty won the day.