One of the most appealing aspects of writing about space, and NewSpace in particular, is that for the most part, the news and the stories are positive. We are fortunate enough to be living in an era when there are breakthroughs or discoveries being made on almost a weekly basis. It leads to a general sense that things are getting better, a condition which is not often the norm in many other fields.
There are setbacks of course, and this week has already seen two. The first is that another very promising company, Firefly Space Systems, appears to be in deep, deep trouble, with Space News reporting that its entire staff has been laid off due to the sudden withdrawal of a key European investor. At the core of the matter is a lawsuit filed by Virgin Galactic against Firefly founder and CEO Tom Markusic, who worked at Virgin from late 2011 until 2013, a tenure which came after a long run at SpaceX. The suit alleges theft of intellectual property, and basically argues that Virgin “owns” Firefly. According to other reports, the suit itself has become a theater of the absurd, with other Firefly board members sewing Markusic to stop him from telling what he knows. Just like the science fiction show after which it was not named, Firefly Space Systems, may be leaving us after too short a run.
And now on to the original edition of the Browncoats vs the Alliance, also known as SpaceX vs United Launch Alliance.
On Friday, the Washington Post ran a story titled “Implication of Sabotage Adds Intrigue to SpaceX Investigation” regarding a visit by a SpaceX employee to a ULA building at Cape Canaveral requesting access to the roof as part of a search into the cause of the sudden conflagration which destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket during a routine fueling test, or wet dress rehearsal.
According to the story, “SpaceX had still images from video that appeared to show an odd shadow, then a white spot on the roof of a nearby building leased by ULA, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.”
Predictably, ULA declined the request, called in the Air Force to investigate, and nothing was found. Even more predictably however, multiple other news outlets picked up the story, and by Monday, the search for more compelling headlines led to phrases like “speculation is building” and “speculation gathers” intended to create a sense of momentum that sabotage is being taken seriously as a cause of the SpaceX explosion.
Nearly all were quick to dismiss the possibility of ULA actually deciding to take out SpaceX via a sniper’s bullet, even if their commentators weren’t.
Whether one subscribes to conspiracies or not, before the fireball even dissipated, there was no doubt Congress would become involved, and sure enough, ULA’s real preferred weapon of choice, its Congressional delegation, was the first to the firing the line with a letter sent to NASA and the Air Force asking that the two agencies take over the accident investigation from SpaceX. And, while they were at it, maybe consider throwing out that pesky competition thing, and perhaps take a look at canceling SpaceX’s NASA contracts for Cargo and Crew. To clarify a previous point, space stories are generally positive, unless Congress is involved.
The fact that SpaceX would entertain the possibility seriously enough to ask to see the roof of a ULA building sitting over a mile away underscores just how difficult an investigation this is turning out to be. It raises the disturbing possibility that a definitive cause will not be identified. In this regard, it is somewhat reminiscent of TWA Flight 800, which exploded 12 minutes after taking off from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport in 1996.
Although the National Transportation Safety Board ultimately concluded the accident was caused by a fuel/air vapor explosion in the center wing fuel tank which had been triggered by a short circuit, the finding was mostly conjectural, without much in the way of definitive proof. It was also accompanied by persistent rumors of outside causes, specifically a ground to air missile which multiple witnesses claimed to have witnessed. In the end, 747’s kept on flying, and there has not been a repeat.
As for the possibility of a sniper’s bullet striking the Falcon 9, there is this one historical tidbit. In 2010, President Obama visited Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral shortly before giving his KSC address cancelling Project Constellation. According to 2013 story in the Huffington Post about the bitter rivalry between SpaceX and its entrenched competitors: “Obama was originally scheduled to appear at a Boeing-Lockheed site, but the Secret Service was concerned about a hydrogen tank there, which a sniper could have blown up from a distance. So the event was moved to the SpaceX site.
“He was actually scheduled to go to their launch site, and literally two days beforehand it was changed to us,” Musk said. “But as a result, there’s a bunch of photos of me walking around with Obama on the launch site like he’s my best friend.”
Like an accident investigation team, once all the obvious possibilities are under review, it is the Secret Service’s job to take into account even the extremely remote possibilities for it to all go horribly wrong.