NASA: Falcon 9 Failure in 2015 Caused by “Design Error”

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Nearly three years after a SpaceX Falcon 9 failed in flight sending a Dragon resupply ship to the bottom of the Atlantic, NASA has finally released a public summary of its own investigation into the accident. [Public Summary — PDF]

You might recall that SpaceX’s internal accident investigation blamed a defective strut assembly in the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank. The strut, provided by an outside supplier, snapped under launch stresses, causing a helium bottle inside the tank to break free and destroy the LOX tank, the company said.

The NASA investigation found that is a credible scenario for the accident. However, the space agency blamed a “design error” by SpaceX. The table below shows a summary of the investigation’s technical findings.

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Op-Ed in The Hill: NASA is Playing Favorites With SpaceX

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

Well, this is interesting.

There’s an opinion piece in The Hill concerning the CRS-7 accident:

Time for NASA to stop playing favorites with Elon Musk’s SpaceX

The op-ed deals with the handling of the investigation in the June 2015 loss of a Dragon spacecraft by NASA and SpaceX. It supports a provision in the Senate appropriations bill that requires the FAA to produce a public summary.

After promising to produce a public summary last year, NASA reversed itself last month. The agency said it was not required to produce one and said the responsibility lies with the FAA.  So, Senators are telling the FAA to produce one.

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Senate Appropriations Measure Requires FAA Report on SpaceX CRS-7 Failure

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

A Senate Appropriations bill would require the FAA to produce a report on the catastrophic failure of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that destroyed a Dragon resupply ship and $118 million worth of space station cargo in June 2015.

“The report must consolidate all relevant investigations by, or at the request of, the Federal Government that were conducted, including those completed by NASA as part of the FAA report, and must also include a summary suitable for public disclosure,” according to a committee report that accompanies the spending bill.

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FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation Budget Boosted in Senate Bill

The Senate Appropriations Committee has ignored a request by the Trump Administration to cut the budget of the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST), instead providing it with a significant boost.

The funding measure would raise the office’s budget from $19.826 million to $21.587 million for fiscal year 2018. House appropriators have approved an identical increase.

The Trump Administration had proposed cutting FAA AST’s budget to $17.905 million.

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NASA Promised a Public Report on CRS-7 Failure Multiple Times

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

My recent report on NASA decision not to release a public summary of its investigation into the Falcon 9 failure that destroyed a Dragon cargo ship has attracted some attention on various other websites. I’ve gotten some criticism there and also here for not understanding that the results of NASA’s investigations on commercial crew are confidential.

Fair enough. However, I was never told this by NASA in my multiple communications with the agency when I inquired about the summary last fall. In fact, they represented exactly the opposite.

Just so there is no confusion on this point, I’m reproducing the email responses I received from NASA when I inquired about this issue last fall as well as the one I received earlier in July.

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NASA Will Take 2 Years to Complete Investigation into 2015 Falcon 9 Failure

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

NASA’s investigation into the Falcon 9 launch failure that destroyed a Dragon cargo ship in June 2015 keeps getting more and more interesting.

I checked in again last week with the space agency about when it would be releasing a public report on the 18-month old accident. This is what a NASA spokesperson told me (emphasis mine):

NASA’s final report on the SpaceX CRS-7 mishap is still in work. While the report is important in providing NASA historical data of the mishap, the accident involved a version of the Falcon 9 rocket that is no longer in use. Furthermore, while the public summary itself may only be a few pages, the complete report is expected to exceed several hundred pages of highly detailed and technical information restricted by U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations and company-sensitive proprietary information. As a result, NASA anticipates its internal report and public summary will be finalized in the summer 2017.

That is a rather long time, even for a sometimes pokey government agency investigating the failure of a booster variant no longer in use.
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NASA Still Hasn’t Released Report on SpaceX’s Last Accident

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

SpaceX’s recent firexplanomaly on the launch pad that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the Amos-6 reminded me that NASA has not yet released an accident report from the company’s previous catastrophic failure in June 2015. That in-flight accident launched a Dragon supply ship bound for the International Space Station into the Atlantic Ocean.

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Bolden Weighs in on Falcon 9 Failure

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

The following is a statement from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the loss Sunday of the SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services 7 (CRS-7) mission.

“We are disappointed in the loss of the latest SpaceX cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. However, the astronauts are safe aboard the station and have sufficient supplies for the next several months. We will work closely with SpaceX to understand what happened, fix the problem and return to flight. The commercial cargo program was designed to accommodate loss of cargo vehicles. We will continue operation of the station in a safe and effective way as we continue to use it as our test bed for preparing for longer duration missions farther into the solar system.

“A Progress vehicle is ready to launch July 3, followed in August by a Japanese HTV flight. Orbital ATK, our other commercial cargo partner, is moving ahead with plans for its next launch later this year.

“SpaceX has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first six cargo resupply missions to the station, and we know they can replicate that success. We will work with and support SpaceX to assess what happened, understand the specifics of the failure and correct it to move forward. This is a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but we learn from each success and each setback. Today’s launch attempt will not deter us from our ambitious human spaceflight program.”

A Look at What Was Lost in Falcon 9 Failure

International Docking Adapter. (Credit: NASA)
International Docking Adapter. (Credit: NASA)

A description of what was on board the Dragon supply ship from the CRS-7 Mission Press Kit.

Cargo

The Dragon spacecraft will be filled with more than 4,000 pounds of supplies and payloads, including critical materials to support more than 30 student research investigations and more than 35 of approximately 250 science and research investigations that will occur during Expeditions 44 and 45. Science payloads will offer new insight to combustion in microgravity, perform the first space-based observations of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere, continue solving potential crew health risks, and make new strides toward being able to grow food in space.

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