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The competition really heats up: The SpaceX investigation into the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion has apparently also included looking into the possibility that sabotage could have played a part.

As part of the investigation, SpaceX officials had come across something suspicious they wanted to check out, according to three industry officials with knowledge of the episode. SpaceX had still images from video that appeared to show an odd shadow, then a white spot on the roof of a nearby building belonging to ULA, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The SpaceX representative explained to the ULA officials on site that it was trying to run down all possible leads in what was a cordial, not accusatory, encounter, according to the industry sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

The building, which had been used to refurbish rocket motors known as the SMARF, is just more than a mile away from the launchpad and has a clear line of sight to it. A representative from ULA ultimately denied the SpaceX employee access to the roof and instead called Air Force investigators, who inspected the roof and didn’t find anything connecting it to the rocket explosion, the officials said.

To quote Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this case, it appears that they have eliminated this impossibility, though it is interesting that SpaceX felt compelled to consider it.


  • Cotour

    I assume that Lockeed Martin and Boeing are direct competitors of Spacex?

  • Cotour: I can’t help it but I have to say that your question implies that you haven’t read anything I have posted on the subject of the launch industry in the past five years, despite visiting Behind the Black almost daily. :)

    ULA is formed from a partnership between Lockheed Martin (and its Atlas 5 rocket) and Boeing (and its Delta family of rockets), and almost everything I have posted about ULA and SpaceX since 2010 has discussed their direct competition.

  • Cotour

    I freely admit that I do not immerse myself in all of the fine details of the rocket industry, although it does interest me greatly. I leave the fine details up to you and others here who are experts.

    Sometimes the most obvious questions from the not totally initiated become the most important questions. In your post you did not state plainly that they were all in direct competition, you indirectly implied it. I just asked the elephant in the room question being a novice.

    And still that anomalous object passing in front of the rocket at high speed after all this high tech analysis remains unknown.

    “Not that kind of UFO” but a UFO none the less :

  • Cotour

    And believe it or not I do not read every word that you write on all covered subjects :o Although I fully appreciate your knowledge on certain subjects and efforts in moderating the site.

  • wayne

    “Sometimes a cigar, is just a cigar.” -Sigmund Freud (or Groucho Marx.)

  • Tim

    It doesn’t appear to me, from reading the article, that SpaceX has eliminated this possibility whatsoever.

  • Cotour

    Sorry…………………………………… I do not smoke.

  • Localfluff

    It was, again, a helium tank in the upper stage which erupted by being over pressurized. And I’m Sherlock Holmes

    @Cotour, if you don’t smoke the cigar, what do you do with it?
    Cigar is btw not smoking since you don’t inhale.

    The term Sabotage gives me this feeling:

  • mivenho

    As the investigation apparently has not yet determined the root cause of the conflagration, I presume that sabotage remains on the table.

  • wodun

    After the issue was raised, they can’t ignore it. How would their customers feel if there was the suspicion of sabotage but it was never looked into? Ignoring it would be far more damaging to the company than Eric Berger’s crusade to get SpaceX to not talk about Mars.

  • Webopeep

    What is the current thinking on the identity of the UFO that over flew the rocket at the time of the explosion and the role that it might have played in the incident?

  • wayne

    A mosquito or a bird.

  • “A representative from ULA ultimately denied the SpaceX employee access to the roof and instead called Air Force investigators. . . ”

    Nothing ominous here, just an illustration of the sclereotification of American society. I’d lay odds the ULA didn’t deny the SpaceX employee access because they thought they’d find something: unsure of the legal ramifications, denial was the safest course. So additional time and expense to do something that could have been done more inexpensively.


    Wooo! So much wooo!
    It’s good to rely on thunderf00t again.

  • wayne

    excellent video!

  • Joe

    Agreed on Insomnious video

  • Cotour

    Wayne, INSOM, Joe.

    Two problems:

    1. Even after this period after the event and through a lot better technology that anyone here or on the web has, they have not stated what that object is. Bug?, drone?, bird?, ET?. Nothing.

    2. Distance: If you watch the INSOm video, which is a perfectly reasonable video, the object appears from what I can observe, to be at the distance and height of the rocket tower. Watch the video and notice that it does appear to emerge from behind the top deck of the lightning tower, right at that top left hand corner of the deck. If that indeed can establish the distance the the INSOM video is just a video that offers an explanation based on what someone has determined to be the “facts”.

    And then you have their high tech direct competition for hundreds of millions / billions of dollars in contracts only a short distance away? I like the Sherlock Holmes theory until they come up with something concrete.

    Until then, its a “UFO” (not necessarily from Uranus) but a UFO none the less.

  • Chris

    I was suspicious of sabotage because of the payload – if memory serves – an Israeli satalite?

  • mpthompson

    I really doubt SpaceX was a victim of sabotage, but I think it is rather shocking to realize that a sniper with a sufficiently high powered rifle and a well placed (or perhaps not even a well placed) shot can cause a rocket such as the Falcon 9 to go up in a large fireball and erase all evidence of sabotage. Hmmm, I may have to reconsider…


    Cotour, mpthompson,

    thunderf00t has made some other videos where he comments on some potential design flaws. Although, I do disagree with him when he presupposes that a reusable, self-landing rocket is too problematic to be depended on.

  • Maurice

    I’m still shocked so many of these stacks of explosives actually make it into space. After all, unless the propellant is solid, turbulent flows can occur, not to mention the fact that the sun can heat one side of a rocket up while shading the other side, leading to potential turbulent flows. Taking Apollo 13 as a sample, stirring highly volatile gasses compressed to the point they become liquids can cause sudden issues. Also, i still vividly remember my science teacher explaining that certain complex hydrocarbons have the tendency to self-ignite under the right circumstance, then following it up with an explosive demonstration under controlled circumstances.

    Technology is fickle – we got unlucky this time.

  • Gealon

    Maurice, the oxygen tank on Apollo 13 exploded not from the stirring it’s self, but because the wiring inside the tank was damaged. When it burned in the high pressure, pure oxygen environment it burned very quickly, IE, exploded. I imagine other components in the tank burned as well after the wiring ignited them, many interesting things burn in pure oxygen. In any case, simply shaking up pure oxygen, in a liquid form or not, would not cause an explosion, there must be a fuel present and an ignition source.

    On the note of sabotage, I will honestly say, that was my first thought when I heard it was an Israeli satellite.

  • wayne

    Gealon- thanks for bringing that up (Apollo 13)– something like a fuse or a relay for the tank fan. (I’m too lazy to look it up.) From memory– it had survived testing but was damaged, & was installed into a tank a year-18 months before the mission. The proverbial 25 cent part that failed.

    As for sabotage; these guys are Pro’s, they look at everything. They have a distinct interest in determining what happened.

    I thought it was a Facebook satellite, to be aimed at the middle east? (again, I’m too lazy to look it up…)
    I do have a lot of faith in Israeli Intelligence, more-so than our own CIA, at least at the upper levels. (the hack politicians)

    >This doesn’t surprise me at all, but I never actually checked,…
    They have a full blown space-agency, all their own.
    (how did I miss this? I see “ISA” a lot of places but never made the connection.)

    Israel Space Agency

    (Way cool stuff!)

  • Edward

    I haven’t commented on this thread, yet, but I have been tempted. Today I caved:
    The shadow followed by the white spot on the roof of the ULA building is a bird’s shadow followed by the bird.

    Please keep in mind that the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge covers most of Kennedy Space Center and most of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where the accident happened. Birds are everywhere, there. The launch pad is right next to the ocean, so wildlife refuge or not, seagulls are also common.

    Why did investigators check out the ULA roof? Because someone noticed something that seemed unusual, and they needed to make sure that it was not something related to the accident, such as a sniper hiding on a roof (as though the swampland does not provide beaucoup better hiding places to shoot at a towering rocket). This is why the Air Force investigators did not make a big deal out of their time on the roof. Something that moves on a roof seems unusual, but birds flying in the wildlife refuge were all over the whole video.

    If every speck that I saw in the sky were to be classified as a UFO until I could determine whether it were a bird, a plane, or Superman, then I would be reporting UFO sightings all freaking day long. In fact, as I write this, there goes another bird, visible from the window. Or maybe it’s a plane; there are several airports and their associated landing patterns, around here, so it probably isn’t Superman, as the Daily Planet is located a couple of cities over.

    Stop with the UFO garbage. Sherlock Holmes would have lost his reputation for suggesting such an unlikely explanation, and no one would continue to read his books.

    Until they come up with something more concrete than a bird, it is a fracking bird.

    On a more down to Earth and less fantastic topic:
    I recommend the end of the book “Apollo 13” by James Lovell for a more descriptive explanation of what happened to damage the oxygen tank and why the NASA engineers and inspectors mistakenly believed that it was safe for flight.

  • wayne

    Edward– good stuff.

    Reference Apollo-13, check out the October 1970 issue of Popular Science. Cover story is specifically on the failure.
    Starts on page 66. Some good details in classic Pop Sci fashion. (pictures & line drawings) I recall reading this at the time, & along with the Movie, that’s about all I remember. (It gets worse the older I get…)
    It’s at Google Books & sorry for not posting a link.

  • PeterF

    My first thought was maybe someone was sabotaging an Israeli satellite. The report of a shadow (sniper) on a roof (controlled by a competitor) followed by a white spot (muzzle flash) could support such an hypothesis. Then rational thought takes over. I agree completely with Edward’s point that a sniper on a bare roof would be stupid. A sniper would not expose themselves so needlessly. A one mile shot would require a large caliber weapon and could be safely made much closer with a smaller weapon for such a large target. A shorter range would improve accurate targeting of an easily blamed ignition source.
    Also, the timing of the anomaly is an argument against sabotage. A sniper waiting until after engine ignition before opening up would mask any audio recordings of the event and make a normal failure mode more believable in the absence of forensic evidence following a high energy explosion and high temperature fire.

  • Edward

    Wayne wrote: “It’s at Google Books & sorry for not posting a link.”

    That’s OK. I kind of meant to check it out at the library, but a royalty check to hero Astronaut Lovell would be nice, too.

    I hadn’t thought it through that thoroughly, but I think you are right. The closest that I have come to being a sniper — I don’t hunt — is to watch a couple of sniper movies, but it seems that they wait for the right moment.

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