THREE WEEKS AGO, on its seventh scheduled launch to resupply the International Space Station, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket inexplicably burst into flames less than three minutes into its flight. Today, Elon Musk finally announced what led to the explosion—sort of.
Emphasizing that their findings were only an “initial assessment,” Musk said that they believed that a broken strut—a two-foot-long piece of steel, an inch wide at its thickest point—was responsible for the rocket’s explosion, which had previously only been attributed to a “decompression event” in its liquid oxygen tanks. No one was injured, but the 4,000 pounds of cargo in the attached Dragon space capsule got blasted into smithereens.
By design, the faulty strut should have been able to take 10,000 pounds of force—well above the 3,500 pounds that the struts actually experience during a launch. But after screening “some enormous number” of them, SpaceX found that some could only withstand 2,000 pounds. The struts were made by an outside supplier that Musk wouldn’t name.
The original point of launching the rocket, in addition to resupplying the ISS, was to try to recover the Falcon 9 on a floating barge in the ocean so that SpaceX could reuse it.Commercial spaceflight companies like SpaceX want to find a way to reuse their rockets, dramatically decreasing the cost of space delivery and travel. (A NASA-funded study reported that using commercial spaceflight could make a trip to the moon up to ten times cheaper.)
SpaceX has never succeeded in recovering Falcon 9, this being the third time in the last eight months that the rocket has crashed or burned. But it’s the only time that the company has failed to even deliver the ISS supplies (and the third time this year that a resupply mission has failed).
Original information from Sophia Chen of Wired.