This week’s loss of a Falcon 9-FT (full-thrust version) on the pad at Cape Canaveral creates real problems for NASA and the ISS. The vehicle exploded during fueling for a static-firing test of the 9 first stage engines, a dress-rehearsal in preparation for the actual launch of the rocket a few days later. Rockets exploding during fueling is something that really shouldn’t happen these days, especially when the vehicle involved is supposed to be human-rated (safe for crewed flight), lofting people into low earth orbit beginning in 2018.
The Xplosion on the pad points to: human error, a problem with the design and/or metallurgy of one or more fuel tanks and/or a problem with the design and mechanics of the fuel-loading system. This is the second time in less than two years that a Falcon 9 has blown its top due to a problem with the fuel system. The first time around, poorly manufactured steel struts caused a fuel tank component to break free in mid-flight, puncturing one of the fuel tanks and destroying the vehicle. The Falcon 9 is supposed to begin bringing crewed Dragon capsules to ISS in the not-too-distant future and is supposed to be the part of the core of the Falcon Super Heavy vehicle that SpaceX will test in 2017.
A lot rides on finding and fixing the latest fault. SpaceX had recently convinced the US Air Force that the Falcon is reliable and inexpensive enough for national security payloads. As we heard just yesterday, SpaceX has given the USAF a seat at the investigative table. How and when NASA grants the vehicle a human-safety rating will be interesting to see. Right now, the launch vehicle has a potential failure rate (on pad and in-flight) much worse than the retired Space Shuttle. In the meantime, Boeing and NASA are continuing to prepare vehicles for human-rated low earth orbit (and beyond in NASA’s case) for liftoff in 2018.
Taking a broad perspective on this, here’s a question: “how do the Russians do it?” It being highly-reliable human space flight. Flight after flight of Soyuz “taxis” lofted into low earth orbit for decades to the Salyut station
, then the Mir and now the ISS without substantial fault or failure. Obviously, the Soyuz technology has developed incrementally over a remarkably long period of time while SpaceX, Blue Origins, Orbital ATK and Virgin Galactic have put forward new designs and capabilities engineered from the ground-up (mostly). I wonder if engineers at these firms ever could invite their Russian counterparts to sit at the table during failure analyses. The transfer of knowledge and experience surely would be interesting.
In the meantime, it’s now 6 years since NASA and the U.S. ditched the shuttle. If we are lucky, we may regain a human spaceflight capability in two more years. Fingers-crossed.