NASA concludes design error caused June 2015 Falcon 9 launch failure

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NASA’s independent investigation into the SpaceX’s June 2015 Falcon 9 launch failure has concluded, like SpaceX, that it was caused by the failure of a strut holding an internal tank, but unlike SpaceX the report cites a “design error” for that failure.

In simpler terms, the steel strut that SpaceX chose was not certified to be used in such conditions. Furthermore, SpaceX did not meet the 4:1 redundancy requirement that the manufacturer had instructed. Therefore, the IRT recommended that SpaceX applied greater care when certifying commercially sourced parts for flight.

Interestingly, the IRT also discovered another area of concern not directly related to the accident that arose during the investigation. The report found that the telemetry architecture on the upcoming “Full Thrust” version of the Falcon 9 included a new method of handling packets that increased latency, and thus vital data could have been lost in the event of a similar anomaly.

The IRT report finished by noting that all of the key findings in the report were addressed by SpaceX in time for the successful Jason-3 mission for NASA.

I suspect a political decision at NASA explains the timing of the release of this report, far later than normal. At this point the issues it raises are mostly moot, as SpaceX has upgraded the Falcon 9 and is no longer using the older version that failed on that June 2015 launch. Moreover, NASA has certified those upgraded rockets, which suggests they have reviewed the company’s methods and have decided it is now using parts that are properly certified.

However, the recent successful launch of Falcon Heavy has created a big threat to SLS. This report, released now, is certainly going to be used by SpaceX’s enemies to argue that it is dangerous to buy its heavy lift rocket. “Look, SpaceX is sloppy! It uses uncertified parts that cause its rockets to blow up!” I can see the op-eds, paid for covertly by the big space companies Boeing and Lockeheed Martin, being typed even as I write this.



  • Your speculation is wrong. Here’s what happened:

    I heard repeated stories that that SpaceX’s lone strut theory wasn’t the full explanation.A brief summary fo the results in a NASA OIG report that dealt with the space agency’s response to the accident indicated the reports were correct.

    I pestered NASA repeatedly in 2016 as to when a public summary would be available. They kept promising it and promising it. In December 2016, they said check back in six months. When I checked the following July, they said they were obligated to release one and were not going to do so.

    About a month later, I found that a Senate finance bill report required the FAA to compile a report on the accident that would incorporate the results of all investigations (including NASA’s) along with a public summary. My guess is this is probably a response to that.

    More details here:

    The story has links to my earlier reporting on the issue.

  • D. Messier: Nothing you say changes my speculation about why the report suddenly arrives now. In fact, that a Senate finance report helped push its release adds some weight to my theory about the timing of the release. There are people in the Senate who very much want to help SLS in its competition with SpaceX, and would take whatever action they can to aid SLS if they can. Getting this report released now certainly can help the SLS crowd.

  • ‘ . . . help SLS in its competition with SpaceX, . . .”

    I’d say the competition is over. To repurpose a bit of basketball wisdom: (Launch) don’t lie.

  • Blair Ivey: As long as the powers that be in Congress want to funnel money to SLS, this competition is alive. The money will be wasted, but if SLS has any measure of success, these masters of pork are going to use that to funnel more money down the black hole, for as long as they can. This is why the private sector has to blow the government pork projects away, repeatedly, and embarrassingly so.

  • The only thing I know for sure is that NASA dumped this report in the midst of the 3-day Satellite 2018 Conference in DC. Most of the reporters are focused on that with a ton of news coming out about that. Space News hasn’t even done a story on the report two days later. If NASA’s goal was to diminish the coverage of it, the only better time would have been 5 p.m. on a Friday.

    I don’t see any evidence of it being related to the Senate finance report. People could point to the accident summary, but the response would be hey we fixed all this stuff.

  • D. Messier: You certainly could be right and I am reading too much into this. However, I have had too much personal experience with the large established contractors and the maneuvers they do to squelch or damage their competition. I would not be at all surprised if the report was issued now to give them added ammunition against SpaceX, following Falcon Heavy’s success. Consider: they were required to release this a long time ago. Why suddenly now?

  • That’s the curious part for me. It was in a funding measure concerning FAA for FY 2018, but I’m not sure if the funding for FAA was ever actually finalized yet. It was something the FAA needed to do, but it would have included a public summary of NASA’s investigation which is what we got this week. The bottom line is they were required to release anything a long time ago. So, I’m a bit puzzled by the timing all this.

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