One week after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated in the skies over Cape Canaveral, there are far more questions than answers. Fortunately, one of the answer which has been forthcoming regards the immediate status of the International Space Station, and on that front there is some good news.
The successful launch and docking of the Russian Progress 60 cargo craft in the early hours of July 5th has mercifully re-established one critical component of the uphill supply chain for the International Space Station, even as the single string solution for cargo return found in the Dragon capsule remains shut off.
Carrying 1,940 pounds of propellant, 106 pounds of oxygen, 926 pounds of water, and 3,133 pounds of supplies including experiments, the successful arrival of the station’s most frequent visiting vessel, which was launched aboard an older version of the Soyuz booster than that which left its predecessor spinning out of control in April, ensures that for the moment at least, the loss of the CRS-7 Dragon is not going to become part of a larger story. It is big enough already as it is. It is also rather strange.
Immediately following the disaster, SpaceX founder Elon Musk sent out a tweet which led many to believe that the cause of the incident would be soon apparent, saying:
“There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause.”
Since then however, the normally loquacious Musk has been uncharacteristically silent, limiting himself to a follow up tweet the next day which said that with the cause still unknown, the company was parsing the final milliseconds of data transmitted from the stricken craft in its search for an answer.
One week later, the apparent lack of a readily identifiable cause raises what could be a nightmare scenario for both SpaceX and its customers. Without a defined problem to fix, or a process to improve, the cloud of doubt which has appeared above the undisputed star of the NewSpace movement would have no means to dissipate. While it remains an article of faith for many that a conclusive cause will be found, and that the company and its rocket will emerge the better for it, the fact that the failure took place on the 19th launch of a Falcon 9 booster, and the 14th of the Falcon 9 V1.1 series, is deeply problematic.
In the aftermath of the accident, no phrase has been uttered more frequently than the catch-all “space is hard.” Although true enough, without facts, it is also meaningless to the point of trite. What is actually hard, is that if you are a rocket company dealing with a booster failure which comes not on a very early launch of a new system, but instead after quite a few issue free flights, is the fact that that there are other companies and countries which have put together many, many back to back launches without a loss. Space may indeed be hard, but when United Launch Alliance, Arianespace and the India’s PSLV can all boast of unbroken runs of success, that fact is not an excuse. The bar has been raised.
And it is that fact which brings us back to why the CRS-7 failure is so perplexing. It came not only as SpaceX was set to double the safe flight threshold set forth in the Aerospace Corporation’s 3/7 reliability rule, but also after the Air Force spent many months and more than $80 million certifying the Falcon 9 for national security launches. By those standards, the mission should not have failed. And yet it did. If nothing else, it has led some to question the utility of the certification process in the first place.
And then there is the juxtaposition of the surprising loss with SpaceX’s remarkable progress recovering a Falcon 9 first stage. Many observers expected the third landing attempt to mark its first success. No-one expected the story would instead become what it did 139 after an event free lift-off.
Until the cause is determined to the greatest extent it can be, it is difficult to reach any reasonable conclusions, only a single unreasonable one; perhaps the 28th day of any month is a bad time to be to launching rockets.