Shotwell Says SpaceX 'Homing In' On Cause of Falcon 9 Pad Explosion

Falcon 9 Sept. 1 Explosion
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said it's unlikely a design issue with the Falcon 9 is at the root of a Sept. 1 pad explosion. (Image credit: video)

WASHINGTON — SpaceX is getting closer to finding the cause of a September pad explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9, and the company’s president remains confident the vehicle will return to flight later this year.

In an Oct. 9 speech at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering here, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell suggested that the Sept. 1 accident prior to a planned static-fire test on the company's Cape Canaveral, Florida, launch pad was not a flaw in the vehicle's design.

"We're homing in on what happened," she said. "I think it's going to point not to a vehicle issue or an engineering design issue but more of a business process issue."

She didn’t elaborate on what the potential issue or issues the company is examining as a potential cause for the failure, which the company has previously stated is linked to a "large breach" in the helium system in the rocket’s second stage liquid oxygen tank. Speaking Oct. 5 at the Asia-Pacific Satellite Communications Council 2016 conference in Malaysia, Shotwell said it was unlikely there was a design flaw in the bottles used to store helium in the tank, but rather an "operations" issue.

Because it is not a design issue, Shotwell remained confident that the Falcon 9 can resume launches later this year. "Hopefully we'll recover from this and be back flying a couple times this year," she said.

Shotwell’s speech at the meeting was billed as a talk about the company's Mars exploration plans as an example of a "mega-engineering" initiative. It was, rather, more of an overview of SpaceX’s overall activities, including efforts to make its Falcon 9 reusable, with only a brief mention at the end of the Mars transportation architecture SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk unveiled Sept. 27 at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico.

On reusability, Shotwell discussed a series of static-fire tests of the first stage recovered from the May launch of the JCSAT-14 satellite. "It was the hottest incoming that we had with one of these stages," she said, referring to the high-velocity return and landing of the stage. "It was kind of a wreck."

After doing "the minimum work" to make it operational, the company has been firing the stage on a test stand at the company's McGregor, Texas, test site. "We've fired that stage eight full mission durations, half of which have been at about 10 percent additional thrust," she said.

Two more full-duration static-fire tests are planned for the stage to gain confidence for limited reuse of the first stage. "We'll feel pretty good about reflying each stage once or twice" once those tests are complete, she said. An updated version of the Falcon 9, to be rolled out next year, should be able to reuse its first stage up to 10 times.

Shotwell also briefly discussed a potential broadband satellite constellation the company has been studying. "Our constellation is about 4,000 satellites that we would deploy late in this decade or early in the next," she said.

She explained that SpaceX is driven to develop the constellation in part because the company believes potential customers are dissatisfied with their current options for broadband Internet access. "Elon tends to find an industry where customers are very angry and frustrated," she said. "Let's build little communications satellites and provide global broadband capability for reasonable prices."

A version of that system would also eventually be used at Mars, she added. "If you send a million people to Mars, you better provide some way for them to communicate," she said. "I don't think the people who go to Mars are going to be satisfied with some terrible, old-fashioned radios. They'll want their iPhones or Androids on Mars."

Revenue from a broadband constellation could also support the company's Mars mission plans, she said, noting that telecommunications is a trillion-dollar industry worldwide. "For us to take just a tiny percentage of that provides huge revenue opportunity for us, which would really be a defining factor for Mars and beyond," she said.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.