One year ago yesterday, SpaceX suffered a major launch failure of its Falcon 9 system with the loss of a booster carrying the a Dragon spacecraft to ISS on the CRS-7 resupply mission.
The cause of the accident was traced as being most likely due to a faulty second stage support strut which buckled well below its specified load limit, allowing a high pressure helium bottle to slam through the stage’s liquid oxygen tank, leading to a total loss of mission. The strut was supplied by an outside vendor, which the SpaceX declined to name.
Notably, some in the media were quick to assign blame instead to a company culture famous for hard demands and long hours, only to find out they were badly mistaken.
Ironically enough, if the accident had not taken place, the day might have been very different, remembered for the company’s very first successful booster stage recovery. Instead it turned out to be a costly day for both SpaceX, as well as for NASA, which had selected this mission to haul a multi-million dollar International Docking Adapter for Commercial Crew to the orbiting outpost.
Yesterday, NASA’s OIG issued a report on the agency’s response to the failure. Its findings, the summary of which is included below, were generally as positive as could be hoped for under such circumstances, continuing to reflect the collaborative atmosphere which has characterized the relationship between the agency and both Commercial Resupply vendors, SpaceX and Orbital ATK.
For SpaceX however, the accident may have been the best thing which could have happened. As founder Elon Musk noted shortly afterwards, the vast majority of its employees, having joined in recent years, had never known the agony of a launch failure. Even for the remaining few who had been around during the difficult Falcon 1 campaign which began with three consecutive failures, the CRS-7 loss was a searing reminder of just how thin the margins really are. It might have even prompted a moment’s reflection and admiration on the amazing success records compiled by arch rivals United Launch Alliance and Arianespace.
The real outcome won’t be known for years. After all, NASA suffered two tragic in-flight failures during the course of the Shuttle program, and as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report made clear, the agency ultimately failed to retain the lessons learned from the loss of Challenger 15 years before. With SpaceX set to conduct its first Commercial Crew test flight next year, the CRS-7 memory are still fresh, a reality which bodes well for a company accustomed to taking on the seeming impossible, and whose goals stretch much farther than low Earth orbit.
The challenges, and the risks, only become more daunting. As Elon Musk underscored last month, SpaceX’s ultimate purpose, the settlement of Mars, is one which will quite possibly result in fatalities along the way.
Just maybe the lessons learned in the aftermath of June 28th, 2015 will ensure that when another dark day comes, it will once again be due to a failure of equipment, rather than one of culture.
NASA OIG Summary:
“Due to the loss of SPX-7 and the shift of SpaceX’s eighth resupply mission into 2016, approximately 3.48 metric tons (3,480 kilograms [kg]) of pressurized cargo scheduled for delivery in fiscal year (FY) 2015 did not arrive on the Station. NASA was able to absorb this loss because increased packing efficiencies and high cargo densities enabled transport of an additional 746 kg of upmass on two other SpaceX cargo missions and a Japanese cargo flight. In addition, the Russian space agency carried an additional 100 kg of pressurized upmass for NASA over six different flights. These measures reduced the total upmass shortfall from 3.48 metric tons to 2.63 metric tons (2,630 kg). Furthermore, the SpaceX and Orbital mission failures have led to a compressed launch schedule in FYs 2016 and 2017, with 11 cargo resupply missions, 7 Russian cargo missions, and 1 Japanese cargo mission now scheduled to arrive at the Station. In mid-2014, NASA astronauts were spending as much as 44 hours a week on research and related activities. While program officials stated that the number of research hours will not fall below the 35-hour/week minimum, the total time devoted to research may decrease from 2014 levels as astronauts take time to receive, unpack, and repack all of these vehicles.
The most significant item lost during the SPX-7 mission was the first of two Docking Adapters necessary to support upcoming commercial crew missions. Although NASA had planned to have two Adapters installed on the Station before the first commercial crew demonstration mission scheduled for May 2017, it is now likely there will be only one installed in time for these missions. Having only one Adapter means that a commercial crew vehicle will not be able to dock with the ISS if technical issues arise with the single available docking port. ISS Program officials stated that they plan to have the replacement Adapter installed before regular commercial crew rotations begin. We found NASA is effectively managing its commercial resupply contract with SpaceX to reduce cost and financial risk. The Agency has taken advantage of multiple mission pricing discounts and negotiated equitable adjustments of significant value to the Agency. In addition, following the SPX-7 failure NASA negotiated significant consideration in the form of Adapter hardware, integration services, manifest flexibility, and discounted mission prices for the SPX-16 through SPX-20 resupply missions. However, we also found that for the first seven cargo missions NASA did not fully utilize the unpressurized cargo space available in the Dragon 1 capsule’s trunk, averaging 423 kg for SPX-3 through SPX-7 even though the trunk is capable of carrying more. The ISS Program noted that unpressurized payloads depend on manifest priority, payload availability, and mission risk, and acknowledged it struggled to fully utilize this space on early missions, but as of June 2016 the Agency’s cargo manifests show full trunks on all future SpaceX cargo resupply missions. Finally, the ISS Program adopted a tailored risk management approach for commercial cargo launches that deviated from existing procedures for evaluating launch risks. In practice, NASA has treated all commercial resupply missions as the lowest level risk classification irrespective of a mission’s value and relies primarily on its commercial partners (SpaceX and Orbital) to evaluate and mitigate launch risks. As a result, risk mitigation procedures are not consistently employed and the subjective launch ratings the Agency uses provide insufficient information to NASA management concerning actual launch risks. In addition, NASA does not have an official, coordinated, and consistent mishap investigation policy for commercial resupply launches, which could affect its ability to determine the root cause of a launch failure and implement corrective actions.”