Not sabotage!


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This closer look at the circumstances behind the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion outlines why sabotage by a sniper is almost certainly not the cause of the explosion.

The rocket was destroyed about eight minutes before it could start its engines for the static test fire. The supposed sniper could have waited until first-stage engine ignition, which would have covered the sound of a shot. Even a suppressed rifle can be quite loud, and the passage of the bullet through the air would have generated a distinctive sound. As Elon Musk wrote on Twitter a while ago, his team did not come to that conclusion. “Particularly trying to understand the quieter bang sound a few seconds before the fireball goes off,” Musk tweeted. “May come from rocket or something else.”

The .50-caliber Barrett rifle has a maximum effective range of little over a mile. It would be extraordinarily difficult (albeit not impossible) for a trained sniper to get within rifle range of the launch pad, given the tight security at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The article also notes that fuel tanks simply don’lt explode when you fire a bullet into them. Moreover, the problem came from the rocket’s second stage helium tank, and it would have been easier for a sniper to fire at the rocket’s first stage.

It was necessary for the investigation to look into this possibility, but it is also necessary to put the suspicion aside when it is found to be invalid. SpaceX had a rocket failure of significant importance on September 1st, and they need to uncover its actual cause in order to prevent it from happening again. Getting distracted by theories that don’t work will prevent them from doing that.

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12 comments

  • wayne

    Well said Mr. Z!

    I hate to admit it, but when I was young and stupid, I once shot a small propane-canister with a deer-rifle. We were expecting it to explode “like on TV,” but it didn’t.

  • PeterF

    Hey! were you reading my mind? I just posted these very same points on the other thread!

  • mpthompson

    Unless there is actually any proof, any talk of sabotage seems like a big mistake. Even just idle speculation. It’s a huge distraction and red meat for the media to grab onto and use to ridicule commercial space efforts. We have to keep in mind there are a lot of special interests that benefited greatly from the state of affairs over the last 50 years with regards to access to space. Those interests are probably just rubbing their hands in glee seeing speculation over what happened to AMOS-6 Falcon 9 explosion veer in this direction.

  • Laurie

    A laser doesn’t have an effective range limit – just remain on that spot … right … there …

    imagination running away with me…

  • Localfluff

    One could go 911 conspiracy here and claim that SpaceX themselves put explosives in their rocket and set them off after the terrorists shot it. Makes sense, eh? The evidence is that the rocket did not fall over, like the WTC should’ve, if it hadn’t all been a Hollywood mockup made out of plywood. Actually, this was a 1,000 to 1 sized super F9 rocket and the dot on the screen is a jumbo jet crashed into it, flewn by Usama bin Ladin himself. I know this is true because I talked with him afterwards.

    Heck, it is easy to be a conspirationist, one just make it up as one goes! No need to use the brain. I could type thousands of webpages like this in my sleep.

  • Max

    Yes, anybody can come up with a conspiracy. The best ones operate off of the facts at hand. For instance, helium is not flammable, it does not explode. It is used to put out fires in some cases. The venting of liquid helium boils at such a low temperature it is used to freeze the fuel to make it more dense. (The ultimate refrigeration) The craft is designed to handle extreme cold temperatures of space, I don’t think a helium rupture would’ve caused much damage but it would’ve made some bangs of contraction on the structure and would’ve put out a large cloud of condensing humidity as it quickly rise in the air.

    Re-watching the actual explosion over and over again I come to this conclusion… Fuel tanks do not explode unless they are pre-mixed with the oxidizer which is very dangerous. (Think solid rocket fuel, Challenger) venting of flammable fluid results in a geyser type flame as the fuel mixes with atmospheric oxygen. Even a small ignited leak will show up as a flash before the bang.
    There is a lighter than air leak from the first stage drifting up to the top of the second stage were ignition took place in a “spectacular” bang. As the fireball expands outward, A trail of fire extends down the length of the rocket curling around it’s midsection into the water mist above first stage. There is only two ways this can happen, hydrogen has the fastest burning rate of any fuel. The second is electrical in nature. The differential between hot and cold can result in a dielectric current. A static charge following an ionized trail or in this case a conductive gas. Either way, this fire moves extremely fast the length of the rocket and may have triggered a separation charge? The explosion itself was high energy at point specific without any precursors which leads me to believe that it was a explosive charge of some kind. Perhaps a spectral analysis of the bright light will tell us the chemicals or metals that were used. Now spin this anyway you would like, but there is more to this than a simple spontaneous explosion.

  • Cotour

    Q: Related to Max’s comment.

    Are there separation charges located between stages to separate the stages during flight?

    Or are the stages separated mechanically as the rocket progresses?

    If there are separation charges might one of them have malfunctioned?

  • Edward

    I do not know what SpaceX uses to secure its stages together or how they are separated. There are several ways of separating stages, shrouds/nose cones, and strap-on boosters. Even releasing solar arrays, antennas, and booms have multiple ways of separating or releasing the restraints. Very few of them use uncontained pyrotechnics. Pyro charges are usually set up to prevent debris and hot gasses from damaging other parts of the rocket, because — well — explosion. Non-pyrotechnic methods usually do not have this problem.

    One method (of the many methods) of pyrotechnic devices is a cylinder that contains a small amount of explosive (think fire cracker) that, when fired, forces a piston to the end of the cylinder. Attached to the piston is a knife blade (think Exacto knife blade #18: http://xacto.com/products/cutting-solutions/blades ) which cuts a cable or bolt or other hold down. The knife blade, piston and the explosion gases are retained by the pyro mechanism, meaning that the gases do not escape the interior of the devise. It is best that both parts of the separated restraint still be contained in order to prevent debris from flying around wreaking arbitrary havoc and making accident investigations difficult.

    We can be sure that pyrotechnics are not part of this problem, because those would have been an early concern of the investigators. Since they do not know what the cause was, the milliseconds that was their initial focus did not show any unexpected signals to release or ignite any thing that should not have been released or ignited.

  • Pete

    Okay, I’m also in the boat of not suggesting that this was an actual case of sabotage (I personally believe it was yet another problem with cryogenic metal fatigue), but the Spaceflight Insider article made a number of definitive observations which are fundamentally wrong.

    1) It was suggested that a sniper rifle (in the article’s case a .50 Barrett) is ineffective beyond a mile. As many have pointed out this is objectively wrong. The longest recorded sniper kills are well over 2km in distance and that is against a human sized torso. A falcon 9 second stage LOx tank (inside which is the Helium pressurisation system) is an area approximately six times bigger. Assuming that they were deliberately aiming for it, it is well within the capabilities of an expert marksman to hit such a big target at a shorter range of only a mile.

    2) The quote “you can shoot fuel tanks all day and they won’t explode” may be true for things like a car petrol tank. But (even partially) pressurised liquid oxygen is NOT the same as a ‘safe’, stable hydrocarbon. LOx will burn stainless steel or aluminium, and reacts explosively with organics. You don’t need specialised ammo, its going to spontaneously self-ignite as a result of mechanical impact and foreign debris. See section 201e of NASAs SAFETY STANDARD FOR OXYGEN AND OXYGEN SYSTEMS.

    3) A supposed sniper “should have waited until first-stage engine ignition, which would have covered the sound of a shot”. The author is obviously not a hunter or sniper since extreme ranged shots are highly susceptible to air movements. Whilst a rocket exhaust is not the same as a cross wind, it would still have an effect. Additionally the audible shockwave of engine ignition plus the thermal air distortions would have caused havoc with accurate aiming.

    4) “It would be extraordinarily difficult (albeit not impossible) for a trained sniper to get within rifle range of the launch pad, given the tight security at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station”. Trying to suggest that a sole man, couldn’t sneak, trick or be smuggled into the Solid Motor Assembly and Readiness Facility a day prior to launch is frankly laughable.

    Now I wouldn’t lend this particular conspiracy theory any credence except for four things:

    Firstly, what precisely was detected atop the roof of the SMARF building, minutes prior to the engine test and why did SpaceX deem it fit to mention it?

    Secondly, why wouldn’t ULA let the SpaceX investigator search the roof. I would understand if access was forbidden to a security sensitive area of manufacturing or assembly, but we are talking about the roof here. There was no need to refuse access, if accompanied by supervising members of staff.

    Thirdly the only information released by SpaceX so far is that there was a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage LOx tank… and that they haven’t ruled out something hitting the rocket. It hasn’t been made public whether the LOx tank registered an over-pressurisation event prior to the explosion (i.e. the helium tank spontaneously ruptured), or if the LOx tank suffered a pressure wave (or depressurisation) prior to Helium containment failure. By inference from Musk’s statement they must lack data supporting the former, which suggests the latter – external object interaction.

    Fourthly, so far SpaceX has been open about admitting responsibility for design flaws and fubars. The company is financially healthy and has solid support despite previous failures. So this almost accusatory behaviour from them seems unusual for the company.

    We should apply sceptical to the idea that this was indeed an act of sabotage. Other industries suffer from it and the Russian space industry reputedly suffers from it too, so its not beyond the realms of possibility. Jumping to the conclusion that ULA are responsible, though unwise, cannot be dismissed out of hand. Indeed it is almost too easy to establish a case. Cui bono? Looking at it from the perspective of a police investigation, did ULA have the means, motive and opportunity to sabotage?

    Means? ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, both of which have inseparable links to the military. I cannot imagine that it would be particularly difficult for a ULA director to be put in contact with retired personnel with sniper experience.

    Motive? SpaceX is the direct rival of ULA, offering launch services at half the cost. We are talking about the threatened loss of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business per year. That’s a very strong motivator, especially if there is no way you can overhaul your own launch processes to match them economically.

    Opportunity? ULA had a tall building made to measure, with a clear field of fire and staffed with their own personnel. In addition they have extremely strong influence over the Air Force who ultimately control security and criminal investigation at the launch site.

    So is the conspiracy theory plausible? Sadly, yes. This is why the suspicion has teeth despite so many reports laughing it off.

    Is it probable? Personally I think not. There are more subtle ways to sabotage launch vehicles. Shooting one on the launch pad whilst quick and cheap, smacks of thoughtless desperation. If the shot somehow didn’t result in an explosion consuming the area hit, there would be physical evidence of a bullet hole.

    As I said, I still favour that it was a cryogenic related mechanical failure. However, the direction of the investigation does not instil confidence that this was just an accident, and portends increasing animosity between the two companies despite the polite face that has been put forwards.

  • Localfluff

    A bullet hole, and the bullet, will be found by the investigation. Don’t worry about it, it will be so very obvious. That it didn’t happen.

  • Edward

    Pete,
    You spent two pages telling us all about how it could have been sniper fire or other sabotage, say that you don’t think that was likely, then spend a single sentence about how it is more likely to be “a cryogenic related mechanical failure.” Wouldn’t your writing time and our reading time have been better spent on the mechanical failure option?

    I largely disagree with your analysis of the situation. Although your first point is correct, it is made moot by the incorrectness of your fourth point. You may laugh at Air Force security, but after you have sneaked onto Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with a sniper rifle, get close to a rocket, then sneak off again, please laughingly inform them of their security hole(s).

    Section 201e of NASAs SAFETY STANDARD FOR OXYGEN AND OXYGEN SYSTEMS does not say what you said it does. It says: “Potential ignition mechanisms and ignition sources that should be considered include:” It says that it is possible for these to be ignition sources, not that they will ignite. Otherwise, the Myth Busters video would have been very different. That the tracer bullets did not ignite the propane should have told you a lot.

    The correct interpretation is that metallic friction during the burst is a potential ignition mechanism for the conflagration that we saw.

    Distance from the rocket eliminates the “audible shockwave of engine ignition and the thermal air distortions.

    The consequences of sabotaging another company’s rocket on Air Force property would be too terrible to risk. This would be counterproductive behavior. Minor violations of competition have resulted in punishments, including being banned from bidding on contracts for a year. At this point, getting caught sabotaging another company’s rocket — on Air Force property, no less — would be the end of ULA, and Lockheed Martin and Boeing would take losses launching future government payloads.

    ULA does not have “extremely strong influence over the Air Force,” it is the other way around. It is hard to see why you think otherwise.

    SpaceX is acting no differently than in other investigations, but you seem to be seeing a conspiracy in a lack of information. The FAA and the Air Force will not allow SpaceX to hide the cause, and SpaceX does not want to hide the cause. They are highly motivated to reassure their customers and the insurance companies that Falcon 9s are reliable. Not finding a cause to this accident does not help with that goal.

    The shadow and white spot were obviously a bird, and SpaceX did not deem it fit to mention, The Washington (com)Post did. This distraction from the more likely (cryogenic metal) failure source(s) does no one any favors.

    I have seen and been involved in too many problem reports at too many companies to think that anyone is hiding anything. That is counterproductive behavior. Finding and fixing the problems is always productive behavior.

    Please do not add to the sniper/UFO/whatever conspiracy theories unless you actually believe them, and please do not defend them with such poor information and bad (il)logic and speculation. It would have been so much more productive for you to have focused on the cryogenic related mechanical failure that you think was more likely.

  • Pete

    “Wouldn’t your writing time and our reading time have been better spent on the mechanical failure option?”

    I would be very happy to engage in mechanical failure theories, but the point of my post was to encourage ‘sceptical’ analysis, rather than brushing it all off as a conspiracy theory.

    “I largely disagree with your analysis of the situation. Although your first point is correct, it is made moot by the incorrectness of your fourth point. You may laugh at Air Force security, but after you have sneaked onto Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with a sniper rifle, get close to a rocket, then sneak off again, please laughingly inform them of their security hole(s).”

    Does Cape Canaveral security perform full background and biometric identity checks on everyone who enters? Even those with company IDs, or accompanied by VIPs? Has it knowledge of the service records and skill sets of every employee and visitor? Does it x-ray every single object brought in larger than an iPad? Does it check inside the side panels, fuel tanks, exhaust systems, inside the seat upholstery etc of every vehicle on site? Rifles are easily broken down into concealable components and most security measures can be bypassed, especially if someone on the inside is manipulating things for you.

    “That the tracer bullets did not ignite the propane should have told you a lot.”

    That you do not understand the vast differences in the reactive chemistry and ignition dangers between propane and liquid oxygen tells me a lot too. :)

    “The correct interpretation is that metallic friction during the burst is a potential ignition mechanism for the conflagration that we saw.”

    Agree absolutely. However, the source of the ‘initial metallic friction’ is open to sceptical analysis. I personally think it was a helium tank strut failure, but it does not rule out the possibility it could have been something else… particularly considering the careful wording Space-X used.

    “Distance from the rocket eliminates the “audible shockwave of engine ignition and the thermal air distortions.””

    Do you have _any_ experience of long-distance shooting or basic physics?

    “The consequences of sabotaging another company’s rocket on Air Force property would be too terrible to risk. This would be counterproductive behavior. Minor violations of competition have resulted in punishments, including being banned from bidding on contracts for a year. At this point, getting caught sabotaging another company’s rocket — on Air Force property, no less — would be the end of ULA, and Lockheed Martin and Boeing would take losses launching future government payloads.”

    Yes, this is both the crux and the _unthinkable_ aspect. From a historical perspective however, its not impossible.

    As you know, espionage and sabotage are commonplace across many industries. For example Boeing’s 1989 illegal obtainment of classified Pentagon planning documents, or the 2003 case of military satellite documents stolen from Lockheed Martin, which alone cost it multiple Delta IV launch contracts. These were _not_ minor violations and I’m sure there have been other incidents which have been hidden from public scrutiny.

    Over the past 20 years, Boeing alone has been caught performing dozens of illegal activities… and itself suffering industrial sabotage on its own manufacturing lines – such as deliberately cut electrical wiring of multiple 737s in its Renton plant. It has paid out hundreds of millions in fines, so its not as if aerospace companies are innocent of repeated behaviour of this type.

    “ULA does not have “extremely strong influence over the Air Force,” it is the other way around. It is hard to see why you think otherwise.”

    How about ex-employees of Lockheed who, amongst others, ended up with posts of the secretary of the navy, national director of nuclear weapons, and the director of the spy satellite agency..? If you look into it, there’s a lot of revolving door appointments between the USAF and both companies.

    “SpaceX is acting no differently than in other investigations, but you seem to be seeing a conspiracy in a lack of information.”

    No. What I am trying to do is to show that the concept of industrial sabotage cannot be waved away, by a dismissive blog post. Especially when the linked article provided ‘pat’ explanations that do not stand up to common sense, applied science and recorded historical behaviour.

    “The shadow and white spot were obviously a bird, and SpaceX did not deem it fit to mention, The Washington (com)Post did.”

    Why didn’t Space-X mention it. And why have they not officially ruled out sabotage? Sadly it’s been their own actions and lack of subsequent clarifications which has caused such rampant speculation.

    “Please do not add to the sniper/UFO/whatever conspiracy theories unless you actually believe them, and please do not defend them with such poor information and bad (il)logic and speculation. It would have been so much more productive for you to have focused on the cryogenic related mechanical failure that you think was more likely.”

    I’ll be happy too, if and when SpaceX deem fit to give us more technical data. I’ll let your opinion of my logic slide as we all have different points of view and real world experience. I stoutly defend anyone’s right to question assertions made by speculating scientists, engineers, and even tin-foil hat wearers.

    Many thanks!

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