Here’s how SpaceX is figuring out what went horribly wrong with its rocket

Falcon 9 rocket july 2011 dave mosher
A man takes a photo of a Falcon 9 rocket booster on July 6, 2011. Courtesy Dave Mosher

On September 1, a SpaceX rocket suddenly exploded during a routine launchpad test.

Elon Musk has called the accident “the most difficult and complex failure” his 14-year-old aerospace company has ever encountered.

Just over a week after the 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket blew up — and Facebook’s $200 million Amos-6 satellite along with it — SpaceX has released details about its internal team of investigators.

The group is now combing through whatever data they can get their hands on, including videos and audio taken by the public, to get SpaceX back to launching rockets.

A spokesperson at SpaceX told Business Insider in an email that the aerospace company has rounded up “around 20 people” for the core team.

“[M]ore than half are representatives from FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], NASA, US Air Force and industry experts,” the spokesperson said, adding that the “FAA has a formal role and vote on the investigation team.”

Leading the entire group is Hans Koenigsmann — SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance.

“[W]e believe he is the best person to do so,” the spokesperson said. “We are collaborating very closely with the participating agencies, sharing raw data and providing access to meetings.”

The representative declined to provide the company’s images and video of the incident.

A different kind of investigation?

The new team’s composition appears to be very different from the team that looked into SpaceX’s rocket launch failure on June 28, 2015.

For that accident — in which a Falcon 9 rocket blew up in mid-flight — the company enlisted 11 of its own employees and one FAA employee. That group never made its findings public.

The US government allows closed-door rocket mishap investigations like this through a special federal law, though with some oversight by the FAA.

As Dan Leone wrote at SpaceNews in August 2015, following SpaceX’s previous failure, the company reportedly told him:

“[C]ompany-led investigations are standard operating procedure when it comes to launch ‘mishaps,’ which are legally distinct from launch ‘accidents’ under U.S. federal law. A mishap, SpaceX said in its legalese-laden communique, involves ‘no third-party loss, no flight line deviation, and no loss of life.'”

But not all is hunky-dory within the federal government about such a setup, as Samantha Masunaga and Melody Petersen reported for the Los Angeles Times:

“In June, NASA’s Office of Inspector General said that having SpaceX do its own investigation ‘raises questions about inherent conflicts of interest.’

The internal investigation could leave out contributing factors that ‘may not be fully addressed to prevent future failures,’ the watchdog warned.”

In a sworn June 2016 testimony about overseeing commercial space companies like SpaceX, George Nield — the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation — said the agency follows its mandate to keep red tape to a minimum for rocket-launching businesses:

“[W]hile the FAA has licensed or permitted over 280 launches, there have never been any fatalities, serious injuries, or significant property damage to members of the public. … [T]he National Space Policy directs federal agencies to, among other things, ‘minimise, as much as possible, the regulatory burden for commercial space activities and ensure that the regulatory environment for licensing space activities is timely and responsive.'”

Return to flight

Spacex falcon 9

Although SpaceX can’t reasonably offer a timeline on when its “return to flight” investigation will wrap up, Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance (ULA) — a SpaceX competitor — told Reuters reporter Irene Klotz that it “typically takes nine to 12 months for people to return to flight.”

“That’s what the history is,” Bruno told Reuters.

The ramifications will extend well beyond SpaceX’s walls, says Wayne Hale — an engineer, aerospace consultant, and NASA’s former space shuttle program director.

“It sets back the whole industry,” he told Business Insider, adding that such accidents remind people of the “risky business” of launching rockets. Hale also said the blast leads “to the perception that folks aren’t doing their jobs quite as well as they could” in the spaceflight industry.

SpaceX declined to respond on the record to Hale’s comments, and did not immediately respond to a query about Bruno’s comments on the potentially lengthy nature of the investigation.

However, John M. Logsdon, a space policy expert and historian at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told Business Insider that Bruno’s comment is based on past experience with other rockets, not SpaceX’s.

“Until [the] investigation finds cause,” Logsdon wrote in an email to Business Insider, “all anyone (like Bruno) can do is informed-by-experience speculation.”

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