Firefly Out? Sabotage In? Two Days of Negative NewSpace News

Extinguished ? Credit Firefly Space Systems

Extinguished ?
Credit Firefly Space Systems

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.

Posted in: SpaceX

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5 Comments on "Firefly Out? Sabotage In? Two Days of Negative NewSpace News"

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  1. Dave Huntsman says:

    And now on to the original edition of the Browncoats vs the Alliance, also known as SpaceX vs United Launch Alliance.

    Love it!

    And, truth be told, all the slightly hyperbolic headlines to the contrary, SpaceX showing up to look at the roof of a ULA facility is not a surprise. After STS-8, when we deployed a PAM-D upper stage/Insat satellite from the orbiter, there later were issues with the satellite in orbit; and the owners of the satellite were implying that, well, someone else must have been the cause of their problems. It had been a clean deployment; but, on one of the payload bay cameras there looked like a spec of something that came in from the left (?) and bounced off the spacecraft. Our video guys concluded it wasn’t something physical, but an effect; but…. to please everyone – including our satellite customer – I went down to KSC and inspected the entire cargo bay in the OPF inch by inch. Naturally, didn’t find anything. But, all the boxes have to be checked.

    Though, still, I feel this particular rocket failure, until it’s fully explained, is ‘strange’.

  2. Michael Smith says:

    A sniper bullet takes out a rocket?! Come on. Let’s get serious. I mean really – bullets, sabotage, conspiracies, international intrigue, China, Congressional blackmail, Mars, electric cars ……. This is getting a bit nutty. Ok, lets look at this sniper story. What possible reason would a competing company, which has deep roots in congress and has been enjoying the spoils of excessive costing for decades, have for sabotaging a competitor that has the very real potential to cripple it? And seriously, as anyone who has any understanding of the history of the aerospace industry would know, competition between these billion dollar companies has always been conducted in a respectful manner, even to the point where these competitors work to encourage each for the sake of advancing mankind’s evolution on earth and beyond. Sabotage! Seriously. Ok, I’ll acknowledge that Musk has thrown out a challenge to both space and car industry and does threaten the oil industry giants and the long established, money raking control of some companies in the aerospace. And this may, I say “may”, threaten the cosy and profitable relationship between members of congress and some of these companies but there is no way possible this could result in a professional sniper being paid to take a shot from the roof top of one of the SpaceX’s competitor’s buildings that would result in the cutting off of NASA’s funding and support of SpaceX. Besides, I don’t think it would be possible for anyone to achieve such a shot over a mile – is it? So lets stop this nonsense about sabotage. And that nonsense about a Navy drone being involved in this sabotage (sorry, I meant to say “alleged”)has no credibility. America is the land of opportunity, home of the brave and land or the free – just don’t make waves that threatens the establishment. Sniper bullets?! Seriously. Next it will be claimed President Kennedy was killed by a cabal of people he threatened by his anti-war policy and the introduction of dollars based on silver that circumvented the Fed’s profits. It’s all rubbish. Reality is simple and not the product of greed and skulduggery. Sabotage? Sure. Get real. Oh yeah. For those readers (if any) who are SpaceX stockholders…um…have a Merry but cheaper Christmas.

    • Dave Huntsman says:

      Michael, methinks you’re going too far in the other direction. No one suggested ULA even might have ordered an, er, hit, on a competitor’s rocket; it’s not their style, since, as has been indicated, their preferred weapons of choice are Congress and DOD. But checking the roofs of nearby buildings after a off-nominal, off-nominal accident? For whatever reason, that can be totally appropriate.

      In conspiracy land, if I had to pick someone, it would be our friend Putin et al, whose own rockets – and, the engines supplied to the US – provide real hard cash and employment for a Soviet (oh, forgive me; Russian (!)) strength; and the single biggest threat to that hi-tech income and employment, on a couple of levels, is, factually, SpaceX (plus, their own reliability problems). At the moment, SpaceX is down….and just per happenstance, Russia comes out with new, smaller Protons to directly compete with Falcon-9-class missions.

      See? I can spin ’em as well as anyone……..

      • Michael Smith says:

        Dave, I thought I made it clear that a sniper on the ULA building was a ridiculous claim. Just nuts. Putin? I think you’re on to something there? Yes – that damn, murderous Putin. One thing I am certain of is that ISIS is somehow involved or al-Qaeda. Seriously speaking, SpaceX either has a manufacturing process problem or it was the subject of sabotage. These are the facts. Given all the political and commercial turbulence swirling around the phenomenon that is SpaceX, sabotage is likely. Reality is that SpaceX, because of its success, has been heading deeper into troubled waters with each success and technological milestone. That Congressional members are involved makes it clear that SpaceX is now clearly viewed as a threat to the status quo. SpaceX is not just a technological breath of fresh air. It is fundamentally a game changer on multiple levels. So who has the most to lose by the impact of SpaceX? The answer is every player in the world of political and commercial power. SpaceX is in the same place as President Kennedy was – a threat to established power. The solution posed by President Kennedy was solved by assassination (in truth it was murder). SpaceX cannot be assassinated (although the death of Musk would diminish the visionary drive) but it can be sabotaged and reduced to a technological footnote.

        • Dave Huntsman says:

          I’ll diverge slightly; because SpaceX has inherent vulnerabilities – though just existing today as a real threat to the established space order, starting literally from scratch, has been incredible already, right? Besides all that, being the only company going all out to have multiple launch facilities will add resiliency to them that others will envy in the future.

          Vulnerabilities include:
          – All income for foreseeable future, needed to do anything, dependent on only one launcher core and only one engine;
          – SpaceX is a single earthquake away from being down for many, many years. The only positive thing that can be said for this risk factor, is that they are not physically sitting right on top of the San Andreas fault (!) (it’s to the east of downtown LA et al).

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