Space X – investigation heading for closure

by Braddock Gaskill

The official US Government joint investigation into the Falcon 1 launch failure in March will be completed in approximately two weeks, SpaceX reports.

The findings of the “DARPA/SpaceX Return to Flight Board” will be made public after the senior DARPA leadership has been briefed, stated Elon Musk yesterday in his first official update since just after the crash.
The ongoing investigation has prevented SpaceX from releasing details about the failure, resulting in relative silence from the company.

‘We are just unable to discuss the issue in any detail until our gov’t customer for that first flight completes their review,’ a company official told

At an ISDC presentation in May, Musk had stated that the fuel leak that led to an engine fire during the launch had been caused by an ‘on-pad processing error on the part of a couple of technicians on the day before the launch’. reported – via sources – that a pad technician had been working on the vehicle’s avionics and had loosened but failed to re-tighten a tiny fuel pipe fitting.

For more information on the Falcon 1 failure, read ‘SpaceX: Come Hell or High Water’

‘No major surprises were uncovered in the course of the investigation’, stated Mr. Musk yesterday, which would seem to indicate that the previous revelations about a procedural error were correct. 

The next Falcon 1 launch attempt, under a new agreement with DARPA and the Air Force, is planned by the end of this year from Kwajalein.  The new attempt will be a pure flight test and only carry an instrumented dummy payload instead of a functional satellite.

With the conclusion of the investigation, Musk promised to reveal many changes in design and procedure that are being incorporated into what he dubbed ‘Falcon 1.1’.  He had mentioned in April that SpaceX would increase the number of software abort indications from sensor readings ‘by an order of magnitude’. 

Only about 20 of the 120 vehicle sensors were checked by software on the failed launch.  While controllers didn’t catch the problem before liftoff, ‘If we had been looking at the right data stream at the right time we would have caught it,’ he stated at the time.

Mr. Musk also noted yesterday that tremendous progress has been made on the large Falcon 9 vehicle, with a stage hold down multi-engine test firing expected in about six months.  ‘Except for the fairing (nosecone), we are 90% done with all the manufacturing tooling and should have serial number 1 of the first stage built within three to four months.’

Perhaps the most interesting item in yesterday’s statement was saved for last, when Mr. Musk stated that the company is ‘on track to be cash flow positive in 2006, our fourth full year of operation’

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