Pressurization Event in Second Stage Likely Cause of SpaceX CRS-7 Failure

Pressurization Event in Second Stage Likely Cause of SpaceX CRS-7 Failure

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said during a press conference this afternoon that early data indicate that the cause of the Falcon 9 launch failure today was due to pressurization issues in the second stage.  Some confusion remains as to whether the rocket exploded on its own or because of a destruct signal sent by the Range Safety Officer, but Shotwell said she did not believe it was due to a destruct signal. 

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded 139 seconds (2:19 minutes) into flight this morning (Sunday, June 28) following a 10:21 am ET launch.   NASA posted a video of the launch and failure on YouTube.  Shotwell said data showed “some pressurization indications in the second stage” that the company will be “tracking down and following up on.”  She could not provide any other details at this early stage of the investigation other than saying they do not suspect the first stage.

The Falcon 9 was carrying a Dragon capsule with two tons of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) under SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  This was the seventh operational mission — SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.

The cargo included food and other crew supplies, science experiments, a new extravehicular spacesuit to replace one aboard ISS that has partially failed, and the first of two International Docking Adapters (IDAs).  The IDAs are needed for the crew version of Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft to dock with the ISS.  Both were selected for the final phase of NASA’s commercial crew program.  NASA has been hoping that both systems will be available by 2017, although today’s failure certainly will impact SpaceX’s launch plans.  The crew version of Dragon is equipped with a launch abort system that allows the crew capsule to separate from the rocket at any time during the ride to orbit and carry the astronauts away to a safe landing.  That was not the version of Dragon on this launch, but the capsule did appear to survive for at least a short time after the explosion.

This was a commercial launch authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which facilitates and regulates commercial space launch services.  Pam Underwood, Deputy Division Manager of the Operations Integration Division of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said during the press conference that the incident has been categorized as a “mishap.”  Under those regulations, the company takes charge of the investigation, while FAA oversees it.   This is the same process used for the failure of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s (now Orbital ATK) Antares rocket in October 2014 on its third operational cargo mission to the ISS (Orb-3).

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Mike Suffredini, ISS Program Manager at NASA, also participated in the post-failure press conference at Kennedy Space Center.

Gerstenmaier, Suffredini and Shotwell conveyed a similar theme — launching rockets is hard, sometimes they fail, and the key is learning from whatever went wrong and moving on.

Gerstenmaier and Suffredini also made clear they do not want to underplay this “big loss” that is “a blow to us,” but they wanted to focus on the fact that the ISS crew is safe and well provisioned.  SpaceX recently completed its sixth operational mission to the ISS, taking up many supplies and returning to Earth much of the scientific experiments and other hardware NASA wanted back on Earth.  

Russia suffered its own failure of a cargo mission to the ISS, Progress M-27M, in April.  It is set to try again on Friday, July 3.  When asked if NASA wants to add any items to that spacecraft at the last minute to compensate for anything lost today, Suffredini said no, that the crew has everything it needs.  NASA tries to “protect” against such failures by having extra supplies aboard and the crew will be fine through October even if no additional supplies are delivered.  He noted that other cargo vehicles are on track to deliver cargo to the ISS in the near future:  Progress M-28M on July 3 and Japan’s HTV in August.   Orbital ATK is also planning for the next launch of its Cygnus cargo ship before the end of 2015 using the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.  Its own Antares rocket is expected to return to flight in the first quarter of 2016.

The NASA representatives said they do not expect any change to the launch of the next ISS crew in July because of this failure.  Usually there are six people aboard the ISS, but currently there are only three — NASA’s Scott Kelly and Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka — because they are in the middle of a crew changeover.   Three crew members just returned to Earth.  Their replacements — NASA’s Kjell Lindgren, Japan’s Kimiya Yui, and Russia’s Oleg Kononenko — are scheduled for launch on July 22.   Gerstenmaier stressed that the Flight Readiness Review still needs to be held for that launch and NASA wants to fully understand the Progress M-27M failure to make sure a similar problem could not happen on a crew launch (both use Soyuz rockets, although they are different versions), but the SpaceX failure today should not be a factor.  Russia concluded the Progress M-27M failure was due to a “design peculiarity,” but Gerstenmaier’s comments implied that NASA is not yet fully satisfied with that answer.

Asked about whether this might hamper NASA’s efforts to convince Congress to provide full funding for the commercial crew program, Gerstenmaier stressed the need for the full $1.244 billion requested for FY2016.  The House approved $1.000 billion and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $900 million.  Both are above the current level of funding ($805 million), but less than the request.   Gerstenmaier said the money is needed to do the technical work necessary to move forward, pointing to the three failures over the past eight months in the commercial cargo program (Orb-3, Progress M-27M, and today’s CRS-7) as examples of what can go wrong.  There is no commonality across the failures, he said, except that “it’s space and it’s difficult” to fly.

Some members of Congress have suggested that only one company is needed or that if two are needed as NASA insists, they be funded in a “leader-follower” mode where one company proceeds more quickly than the other to spread out the costs. Gerstenmaier remained steadfast that two systems are needed to provide redundancy, and there is no way to predict which company might be ready sooner than the other.

Shotwell was optimistic about how long it will take to identify and fix the problem.  While reluctant to provide a time frame at this early stage, she said she expects it will be “a number of months” but less than a year.  She declined to say how much the launch cost, saying that SpaceX does not discuss costs in public.  

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