SpaceX Still Looking for Theory to Fit Data in CRS-7 Falcon 9 Failure

SpaceX Still Looking for Theory to Fit Data in CRS-7 Falcon 9 Failure

SpaceX is still trying to find a theory that fits the data transmitted back to Earth on June 28 as its Falcon 9 rocket failed 139 seconds after launch.   It hopes to have preliminary findings by the end of this week as it works to establish an extremely detailed timeline of events.

SpaceX founder, CEO and lead designer Elon Musk spoke at the 4th International Space Station R&D conference in Boston this morning.  The conference is organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).  It continues through Thursday.  He participated as part of an on-stage  “conversation” with NASA ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini

Musk’s message this morning repeated what the company said last week — there was an overpressure event in the upper stage (or second stage) liquid oxygen tank, but apart from that, the data do not fit any known theories of what could have happened.

Calling the failure a “huge blow to SpaceX,” he emphasized that “whatever happened is totally not simple or straightforward.”   A “super detailed timeline” at the millisecond level is being generated to determine precisely what happened.  They are comparing video taken during the launch with data that was received.  The timeline must account for each millisecond between when a sensor took a reading, the data got encoded to a data packet, the packet was transmitted to the ground, and received on the ground.  Because the data do not fit any known theories so far, they are also considering whether there might be data measurement errors.

Suffredini asked whether there were any hints yet, but Musk declined to answer because there was media in the room and he did not want to say anything that “turns out to be a misunderstanding of the situation.”

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket failed while attempting to send a Dragon capsule full of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS) under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  This was the seventh mission in that series — CRS-7 or SpX-7.   It was the third failure of cargo missions to the ISS over 8 months:  an Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Orbital ATK) Antares launch of a Cygnus capsule on October 28, 2014; the Russian Soyuz launch of the Progress M-27M spacecraft on April 28, 2015; and this Falcon 9 launch of a Dragon capsule on June 28.

The conference is for the community that conducts research aboard the ISS and Suffredini reassured them that the ISS itself is healthy and still open for business.  However, he acknowledged that the failure has a “big impact to us,” and while the ISS program “always assumed we’d lose one or two” cargo flights, “never in my wildest dreams” did he think three would fail in such a short period of time.

Nonetheless, one must play the hand that is dealt, he continued, and the program is resilient.  The Russians now have launched the next in the Progress series, Progress M-28M, which successfully docked with the ISS on Sunday.  Japan’s HTV cargo vehicle is being readied for launch on August 16.  Suffredini said NASA did make changes to the supplies that HTV will deliver because of the CRS-7 failure, but the research component is relatively unchanged.  Orbital ATK plans to launch a Cygnus spacecraft on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in December while updating its Antares rocket with a different engine.

Suffredini conveyed optimism and enthusiasm for the potential of the ISS for research that will benefit people on Earth, calling it the “next dot com” that is worthy of the challenges it presents.

In a panel discussion following the Suffredini-Musk conversation, Bill Gerstenmaier,  NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, similarly praised the potential of ISS, but also stressed a theme he often expresses these days — that ISS has a finite lifetime and the key question is how to prepare for the next step since he does not anticipate that the U.S. government, at least, will build another ISS.

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