Senate Appropriations Measure Requires FAA Report on SpaceX CRS-7 Failure

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

A Senate Appropriations bill would require the FAA to produce a report on the catastrophic failure of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that destroyed a Dragon resupply ship and $118 million worth of space station cargo in June 2015.

“The report must consolidate all relevant investigations by, or at the request of, the Federal Government that were conducted, including those completed by NASA as part of the FAA report, and must also include a summary suitable for public disclosure,” according to a committee report that accompanies the spending bill.

“The Committee directs the FAA to submit its report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations within 30 days of
enactment of this act,” the report states.

The stipulation comes after NASA said it had no plans to complete a report on its investigation into or release a public summary of it. Last month, a NASA spokesperson provided the following response to an inquiry from Parabolic Arc.

As you know, SpaceX CRS-7 was an FAA licensed flight and the FAA was responsible for overseeing the mishap investigation. NASA had full access to the data, was a part of the SpaceX investigation, and then conducted its own independent review of the incident. The Launch Services Program team briefed its results to NASA leadership in December 2015 (ahead of the Jason-3 mission in January 2016).

Since it was an FAA licensed flight, NASA is not required to complete a formal final report or public summary, and has deferred any additional products related to the matter at this time. The data is important for historical purposes, but the mishap involved a version of the Falcon 9 rocket, the version 1.1, that is now no longer in use.

The position marked a reversal of NASA’s previous written assurances on the issue. Parabolic Arc inquired three times last year about the status of NASA’s final report and public summary. On each occasion, the same spokesperson said the final report would be completed and a summary released.

“NASA anticipates its internal report and public summary will be finalized in the summer 2017,” the spokesperson wrote in an email dated Dec. 6, 2016.

Two investigations were conducted into the accident by SpaceX and NASA. The SpaceX investigation was headed by a company official and included 11 SpaceX employees and a lone FAA representative.

That investigation found the probable cause was a defective strut that held in place a helium tank contained inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank. The strut broke, causing a release of helium that overpressurized the LOX tank.

SpaceX said the faulty strut was supplied by an outside contractor. The company subsequently modified the the strut assembly and made other changes designed to prevent a recurrence of the failure.

NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) conducted a separate investigation into the accident. It is this investigation for which the space agency now says it will not complete a formal report or release a public summary.

However, a brief description of the investigation’s findings was included in an audit released a year after the accident by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (IG).

LSP did not identify a single probable cause for the launch failure, instead listing several “credible causes.” In addition to the material defects in the strut assembly SpaceX found during its testing, LSP pointed to manufacturing damage or improper installation of the assembly into the rocket as possible initiators of the failure. LSP also highlighted improper material selection and such practices as individuals standing on flight hardware during the assembly process, as possible contributing factors.

The IG’s audit was primarily focused on the space agency’s response to the accident and its effects on the Commercial Resupply Services program. So, it does not include much elaboration on the investigation’s findings.

It’s unclear how detailed the FAA’s report and public summary will be as to LSP’s findings. Under the commercial resupply agreement SpaceX signed with NASA, results of the space agency’s inquiries into accidents are deemed confidential.

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  • Congrats Doug, your 4th estate just got the nobility to act (clergy and commoners don’t fit the analogy). This is why a free press is so useful. Congrats on your reporting and getting the attention (even if indirectly) of some important staffers!

  • Spaceman__Spliff

    Yes, congrats Doug. Keep it up!

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Ok but what’s it going to achieve? I mean in practical terms. Is it going to result in vehicle changes, quality control processes, money back to NASA? What exactly? Anyone?
    Cheers

  • Douglas Messier

    Improved accountability to Congress and taxpayers for one. At least for this accident. Perhaps for the future. Those are practical benefits.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    I will give you the Cliffs Notes: It was SpaceX’s fault that the COPV broke free and impacted into the top of the LOX dome causing the Stage 2 disintegration. The issue was on F9 block II and we are now on block IV headed to block V. NASA already struck deal on remediation for the loss of payload. This will, in reality, change nothing.

  • redneck

    It will if Doug is right. More congressional oversight is the equivalent of more sand in the gears.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Oh you are spot on. I should rephrase, no good could come of this but there is definitely downside to having those idiots, that sit on the spectrum of incompetent to corrupt, screwing around. Look how those ass wipes already pressured Blue into building BE-4 half a country away from where it is being designed and currently built just to check the political inefficiency box.

  • Douglas Messier

    You’re focused on the engineering. The issue is how FAA and NASA conduct their oversight and the level of transparency and competence in in the investigations.

    If you don’t think that’s important then wait until SpaceX and Boeing start flying people.

    The IG report that describes NASA’s response to the failures explores some serious concerns about how investigations are conducted with cargo flights. You should take a look at it.

  • Douglas Messier

    This is less about Congress and more about how NASA and FAA conduct oversight. The IG report contains a lengthy discussion of the concerns over how investigations are conducted. It’s worth a read.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    I’m sure the Senate Appropriations Committee will fix all your oversight concerns; I somehow doubt it.

    Yes, my only focus is the engineering, circular firing squads and bureaucratic blue ribbon commissions aren’t really my bag. I’m more of a get shit done, learn from mistakes and move on type (And I reviewed the IG report when it came out). It is not an accident mishap boards are not built into the CRS contracts (this is a feature not a bug).

    Funny how some are still chafing over CRS-7 investigation because of the dissent by NASA but never bring up the AMOS-6 investigation where NASA and SpaceX are in basically complete alignment on the findings. Somehow this “broken” process managed to resolve itself in that case.

    The fact is the telemetry cut out when the stage broke apart, on CRS-7, and there is always going to be ambiguity to the proximal cause (even after the next report is dropped). SpaceX thought the case was strong enough to isolate one probable cause (While acknowledging others possible such as material selection) and NASA didn’t agree. As done in countless cases before you deal with all the probable and even low possibility events and address those and move on.

    NASA has been crawling up SpaceX and Boeing so far on Commercial Crew they’ve been regurgitating freeze dried food. Oversight is a good thing but like everything else it has a marginal utility function associated with it.

  • Douglas Messier

    > I’m sure the Senate Appropriations Committee will fix all your oversight concerns; I somehow doubt it.

    AGAIN, the problem is NOT with Senate oversight, it’s that they had to intervene in the first place. It still doesn’t address the lack of a public summary in this case as opposed to the Antares accident. If it was simply a strut that broke, what’s the harm in a public summary?

    >Yes, my only focus is the engineering, circular firing squads and bureaucratic blue ribbon commissions aren’t really my bag.

    Well, good for you. Give yourself a gold star. Not your bag? What are you, Austin Powers? Who speaks like that today?

    It still doesn’t address the lack of a public summary in this case as opposed to the Antares accident. If it was simply a strut that broke, what’s the harm in a public summary?

    > Funny how some are still chafing over CRS-7 investigation because of the dissent by NASA but never bring up the AMOS-6 investigation where
    NASA and SpaceX are in basically complete alignment on the findings. Somehow this “broken” process managed to resolve itself in that case.

    This still doesn’t address the lack of a public summary in this case as opposed to the Antares accident. If it was simply a strut that broke, what’s the harm in a public summary?

    > The fact is the telemetry cut out when the stage broke apart, on CRS-7,
    and there is always going to be ambiguity to the proximal cause (even
    after the next report is dropped). SpaceX thought the case was strong
    enough to isolate one probable cause (While acknowledging others
    possible such as material selection) and NASA didn’t agree.

    Thanks you for that fine forensic analysis. It still doesn’t address the lack of a public summary in this case as opposed to the Antares accident. If it was simply a strut that broke, what’s the harm in a public summary?

    > NASA has been crawling up SpaceX and Boeing so far on Commercial Crew they’ve been regurgitating freeze dried food. Oversight is a good thing but like everything else it has a marginal utility function associated
    with it.

    Good for them. It still doesn’t address the lack of a public summary in this case as opposed to the Antares accident. If it was simply a strut that broke, what’s the harm in a public summary?

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    When real arguments fail, fallback onto broken record. I have a feeling you will be disappointed on the results of this summary. But time will tell as always.

  • Douglas Messier

    Answer the question. Nothing?

    Could be. In the meantime I’ll be disappointed in your inability to answer a simple question.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Easy to answer actually, the IG report and the SpaceX preliminary teleconference are the summary of what happened.