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.