Musk: Falcon 9 rocket failure a “huge blow” to SpaceX

October 10, 2013 – 01:16 pm

File photo of SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk. Credit: Gene Blevins/LA Daily NewsSpeaking publicly for the first time since a Falcon 9 rocket failure that destroyed a Dragon cargo capsule for the International Space Station, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said Tuesday that engineers are still piecing together what happened during the June 28 accident in hopes of announcing more details within a few days.

The rocket failure occurred minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral — the first such mishap in the Falcon 9’s 19 missions to date — causing the booster to disintegrate 45 kilometers (28 miles) over the Atlantic Ocean.

“Obviously, this is a huge blow to SpaceX, and we take these missions incredibly seriously, ” Musk said in a question and answer session Tuesday at an International Space Station conference in Boston. “Everyone that can engage in the investigation at SpaceX is very, very focused on that. In this case, the data does seem to be quite difficult to interpret. Whatever happened is clearly not a simple, straightforward thing, so we want to spend as much time as possible just reviewing the data.”

Echoing earlier statements by SpaceX, Musk said the company has enlisted help from NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and other customers in the investigation.

He said engineers will “look at both what we think most likely happened, and then anything that’s a close call, and then try to address all of those things and maximize the probability of success on future missions.”

Musk hopes to release more details on the failure by the end of this week after further data analysis and engineering reviews.

“At this point, the only thing that’s really clear was there was some kind of over-pressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank, but the exact cause and sequence of events, there’s still no clear theory that fits with all the data, ” Musk said. “So we have to determine if some of the data is a measurement error of some kind, or if there’s actually a theory that matches what appear to be conflicting data points.”

Musk did not address how long the Falcon 9 rocket might be grounded in the aftermath of the accident while engineers find the cause and implement corrective actions. SpaceX officials have said they informed customers booked to fly on upcoming Falcon 9 launches to expect delays of a few months.

“As soon as we’ve got a clear line on what happened … we’ll certainly put out that story, ” Musk said. “My only reticence about saying something quite yet is I don’t want to say something that subsequently turns out to be a misunderstanding of the situation.”

SpaceX officials said recovery teams in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral have retrieved debris from the launch failure, but the wreckage is small and likely holds few clues to the cause of the anomaly. Instead, engineers are focused on analyzing more than 3, 000 channels of telemetry, including on-board video sources, to re-construct the flight timeline.

“The biggest thing that’s needed in the short term is the ability to just gather all the data, and create a very precise timeline, so that, by the millisecond, we know what each sensor was reading, and we can correlate that with ground video, ” Musk said. “One of the biggest challenges is matching things to the exact time.


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