Cause Of SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Explosion Hinted As Elon Musk Makes Daring New Fueling Plan

Lorenzo Tanos - Author

Nov. 1 2016, Updated 12:20 p.m. ET

September’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explosion was, to say the least, a huge setback for the space travel company. After all the positive developments in the months prior, one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets exploded during a test firing, leading to an investigation that is still ongoing as of this writing. And while SpaceX may have pinpointed the trigger that led to the catastrophic event of two months ago, and may feel confident enough to fuel its rockets with astronauts onboard, experts are warning that this potential move may pose some serious safety risks.

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In a statement released Friday, SpaceX announced that after weeks of investigation, it was able to mimic the possible cause of the Falcon 9 explosion. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the fact that the explosion took place during the fuel tank preparation process led officials, including SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, to pin the blame on fueling, as opposed to design or engineering issues.

“SpaceX’s efforts are now focused on two areas – finding the exact root cause, and developing improved helium loading conditions that allow SpaceX to reliably load Falcon 9,” read the company’s prepared statement. “With the advanced state of the investigation, we also plan to resume stage testing in Texas in the coming days, while continuing to focus on completion of the investigation.”

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It took a lot of testing for SpaceX to be able to come up with a way to recreate a composite overwrapped pressure vessel (COPV) failure through certain helium loading conditions. And now that exactly two months have passed since the SpaceX Falcon 9 explosion, the company is reportedly planning something unorthodox for a future rocket launch. According to Reuters, Elon Musk wants to have the rockets fueled while crew members are already at the launch pad, instead of having them fueled before the astronauts get there.

The Reuters report quoted SpaceX, which said in an email that it will be reevaluating its fuel system and launch protocols contingent on the findings of the ongoing investigation. The company also promised to put a premium on crew safety if and when it gets to carry out its unusual fueling scheme.

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“As needed, any additional controls will be put in place to ensure crew safety, from the moment the astronauts reach the pad, through fueling, launch, and spaceflight, and until they are brought safely home.”

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Given the recent history of SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rockets, as well as the fact no one has done it before, several space industry specialists who are in close contact with NASA cautioned the company that there may indeed be great safety risks in its plan.

“It was unanimous… Everybody there, and particularly the people who had experience over the years, said nobody is ever near the pad when they fuel a booster,” said former NASA astronaut Thomas Stafford, who leads the Space Station Advisory Committee.

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The report wasn’t clear as to when Musk hopes to push forward with his planned strategy. But regarding SpaceX’s upcoming Falcon 9 launch schedule, a report from Spaceflight Now suggests that there may be a couple in store for the remainder of 2016. These may or may not involve Iridium, whose mobile voice and data satellites were supposedly next on SpaceX’s schedule after the events of September 1.

“(SpaceX President and COO) Gwynne Shotwell has said a number of times recently that SpaceX (is) still expected to have a couple (Falcon 9) launches in 2016, which presumably includes ours,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch in an October 27 earnings call. “Until they formally clear the rocket for launch and provide us with a specific date, I don’t want to speculate on timing. However, I remain hopeful that they’ll return to launching this year.”

[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]


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