What could have caused last week’s SpaceX failure?

Last Monday, March 26, at 13:30 p.m., at Cape Canaveral, Fla., SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket carrying a commercial communications satellite into space, arriving one minute later. After hovering for two minutes and…

What could have caused last week’s SpaceX failure?

Last Monday, March 26, at 13:30 p.m., at Cape Canaveral, Fla., SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket carrying a commercial communications satellite into space, arriving one minute later. After hovering for two minutes and 40 seconds to carry out the proper separation, the first stage separated and continued on its intended path of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, approximately 12 minutes after liftoff. Just before the Falcon 9 first stage separated, one of its legs detached from the rocket, making the back portion of the Falcon 9 a little unstable. As the first stage slipped closer to Earth, it’s attached to the rocket and stands directly above the payload and payload body as it descends. In addition to the issue above, two of its four legs also separated. We called SpaceX after the event and were told that they were looking into an incident in which three of its four legs detached during the separation. This was the first time something like this had ever happened, though.

SpaceX, the smaller of two teams competing to bring commercial crew to NASA, said that “no safety implications” emerged from the separation. They also said that the spacecraft “fully separated from the second stage at the planned velocity, with no issues.”

At its own media briefing, NASA said, “SpaceX has made clear to us that the company is investigating what happened.” According to the space agency, “they did share an initial timeline with us, which says that the parachute failed to deploy.” The fact that the parachute failed to deploy suggests that the boosters had reached significantly higher speeds than originally stated during SpaceX’s program-completion report, as well as the most likely cause of the incident. What happened next is unknown. “The first stage and the Spacecraft separation is the standard procedure during every flight of a SpaceX Falcon 9. SpaceX is therefore conducting an investigation into the cause of the anomaly, and the investigation will be completed at the same time as its assessment of the SpaceX Falcon 9-1c launched on March 26th,” said SpaceX. “Our team will thoroughly study every potential scenario, proactively addressing any risks, and remain focused on safely and reliably completing our next Falcon 9 flight.” SpaceX is working on developing new rocket booster boosters to fly their rocket to space, then land it in the ocean. Landing the booster would reduce the cost of the rocket. Any modifications for the recovery of these boosters must be made by SpaceX by May 1, according to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager.

The math on this is pretty simple. To make things better (both financially and emotionally), SpaceX needs to perform a fine-tuning test. If the rocket booster only capable of performing one-fourth of its performance (compared to the best performing booster in SpaceX’s fleet, the Falcon 92B) it will be faster and more effective to simply omit that performance from the vehicle’s overall timeline, thus creating the complete objective.

But here is the problem: The left booster does not belong to the main Falcon 9 rocket. It cannot be included in the calculations. SpaceX only has two engines to recover a large portion of the left booster. It doesn’t have a good data set to calculate the joint rocket booster, one. But (1) it is fully capable of performing 100 percent of its performance, and (2) the reduced design weight as it departs the vehicle may even be an exponential improvement (this isn’t true for the right booster, but it is limited in this regard, too).

NASA is likely investigating the rocket boosters’ inertial measurement unit as well as a new component called the resource separation test. The test is used to calculate and compare performance between the rocket’s multiple stages, and it looks like NASA will need to compare performance between right and left boosters to best achieve safe and perfect back-to-back flight.

Ultimately, the potential for another tragic accident must be kept in mind as SpaceX makes repairs. For example, a design flaw in the strut links the first and second stage legs which will not normally fail in the future. Or if the structure above that leading edge shatters.

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