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SpaceX’s Shotwell on Falcon 9 inquiry, discounts for reused rockets and Silicon Valley’s test-and-fail ethos

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, shown above speaking at CASBAA in 2013, said SpaceX doesn't "have a lot of effort" going into designing a 4,000-satellite broadband constellation Elon Musk announced in January. Credit: CASBAA video

KUALA LUMPUR — SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell on Oct. 5 said the company remains optimistic it will return to flight this year after the Sept. 1 explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its satellite payload in preparation for a static test fire.

Shotwell reiterated that the causes of a June 2015 Falcon 9 launch failure and the Sept. 1 incident appear to be unrelated and that the company is combing through data on operations as it searches for a root cause.

Addressing the APSCC 2016 conference, Shotwell also said Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX is offering a 10 percent discount to customers that agree to fly their payloads on reused Falcon 9 first stages.

She also said SpaceX’s proposed satellite Internet constellation in low Earth orbit remains in the design phase as the company seeks to tackle issues related to user-terminal cost.

Satellite owners spend a lot of effort on their satellites to make them reliable because it’s critically important to them. How does that tie in to the Silicon Valley approach, which is more to innovate quickly and try and push the envelope?

That’s a great question. It’s OK to fail on your missions and demonstrations and tests. It’s not OK to fail on customer missions. But we do push innovation pretty dramatically on our technology and our rockets. However, neither of our failures have been associated with changes in the rocket.

The issue last year fundamentally had to do with a business process. Do we inspect subcontractor hardware, or do we trust the certificates of conformance that we receive from them? What learned is that “Trust but verify” is not a silly phrase. So we’ve changed that process.

Just because we spin the design on the vehicle doesn’t mean we’re willing to take more risk with the customers’ missions. I think we’re proven we can change the vehicle design to make it better, without impacting mission reliability.

We obviously need to let the current investigation move forward and get finalized, but again: I don’t think this had anything to do with the change in the vehicle design. I think it was something separate. These are important lessons for any company to learn, especially if you are going to put people on top of that rocket. You want to learn these lessons now.

Where are you with your satellite constellation and what’s the time frame?

The time frame is pretty TBD. We are looking at building a broadband constellation in LEO, low Earth orbit. We’re definitely in the development phase, although we’re not really committed to that right now.

There have been a number of attempts at doing something like this, and all of them have largely failed. So you don’t go and spend $5-plus billion on a system that’s not going to be a benefit to folks. We are developing test flight satellites that we hope to launch next year. But really the key for us is the technology for the user equipment. If I can’t build an antenna that’s going to install easily on your roof or in your yard for a couple of hundred dollars, then it’s going to be very difficult to compete with the existing systems.

So we really need to crack that code. We’re working, but we haven’t quite cracked that yet. Once we’ve done that, then we will pretty much go all in on the constellation. Sorry to be a little vague on it, but we’re still trying.

The Falcon 9 rocket failure last year was tied to a failed strut. You found a strut in inventory that failed. How do you know that it was a strut that caused the failure and not simply a coincidence and that the cause lies elsewhere?

You have to look at the preponderance of evidence in order to know for sure. Knowing for sure would mean more video cameras in the tanks, which we are doing, actually. We’re going to put more video in the tanks. We currently have video on the tanks. We weren’t downloading the stream on the one that had that particular camera on this most recent event a month ago.

Based on accelerometer data we knew exactly where the failure occurred. And the only thing in that area was a strut and we also had some of these purchased components in inventory and they did not pass screening. So: Do you know 100 percent? No. Do you know 99.9 percent? Yes. I believe the Air Force and NASA agreed with us, I’m pretty sure.

Could you address a recent story that SpaceX suspected that a nefarious actor might have been a contributor to the Sept. 1 failure. I know you can’t eliminate anything in an inquiry, but…

That’s right: You cannot eliminate anything, especially if there are some data points that say it’s possible, but not likely. The more than likely — the overwhelmingly likely — explanation is that we did something to that rocket. And we’re going to find it and we’re going to fix it.

So the idea that an outside force might have intervened to cause the failure is not high on your list of thoughts?

Absolutely not high on my list of thoughts.

If I recall correctly, the NASA report on the June 2015 failure said the strut issue was a probable cause, but not a definitive root cause. You said it wasn’t 100 percent sure, but 99 percent sure. Is it possible that the second-stage composite helium bottle, immersed in the LOX tank, might have been an actor in the 2015 failure and again in what happened on September 1?

Until we complete the investigation and get through all the data, and all the scenarios, you can’t say it wasn’t this or it wasn’t that. I can tell you that the signature for this particular failure was substantially different from the one we saw last June. It’s incredibly unlikely that the scenario that we saw last June was the same as this one. It’s extremely low on the possibility list right now.

What’s the possibility that there’s a design issue with that helium bottle?

I don’t think it’s a design issue with the bottle. I think it probably is more focused on the operations, which is one of the reasons we believe we can get back to flight so quickly.

But we have to finish the investigation. We’re not going to fly until we’re ready to fly.

When you say it’s more focused on operations, you mean filling of the helium tank, or the filling of the LOX tank, or what?

All of it. We’re going to look at all of it.

On Sept. 1 it wasn’t clear whether the cause lay in the ground support equipment, or inside the rocket. You have made the determination that it was inside the rocket and not some procedure during preparation for the static test?

We believe that the composite over wrapped pressure vessel [the helium bottle], known as a COPv, let go in the tank. What caused it, the exact reason it let go, we’re still investigating. I don’t believe it was a ground system cause, but we’re still looking at the data.

So it’s too soon to say you’re going to be back this year or to give any date?

I do believe we’re going to get back this year. We’re running a lot of tests at our test facility in Texas and we’re learning an awful lot. It’s not impossible for us to fly this year.

What is your current thinking on the savings for customers using a reused Falcon 9 first stage? Is a 30 percent discount realistic?

We are not decreasing the price by 30 percent right now for recovered and reused vehicles. We’re offering about a 10 percent price reduction. I’d rather fly on an airplane that’s flown before as I’d feel more comfortable with its reliability.

At this point that is a reasonable reduction and then, as we recover some of the costs associated with the investment that we put into the Falcon 9 to achieve that, then we might get a little bit more. But in general, it’s about 10 percent right now.

The first stage recovered from the JCSat-14 launch, a mission to GTO, has now been put through eight ignition sequences in Texas, with two more to go. Then what happens?

Then we put that vehicle to rest. That actually is the qual [qualification] vehicle. That vehicle will basically have served its purpose. It just gives us confidence. You know, you can qualify a vehicle with increased margin, or amplitude, or with increased duration. The testing we were doing in Texas was a little bit of both.

The thrust we were testing for about half those mission durations was higher than we flew it, and we wanted to get 10 life cycles on that vehicle that we had flown before.

Is it fair to say that at least at the outset, the reused first stages will be principally from LEO missions?

Not necessarily. For sure, we will ultimately be re-flying every booster we feel comfortable do so with. The vehicle we will fly for SES was a LEO recovered vehicle. The fact that we took a very hot mission — JCSat-14 came in incredibly hot, it was a stressing mission for us — that’s why we wanted to use that vehicle for the qual vehicle. Because it really got beat up.

Is it possible SpaceX is trying to do too many things at the same time? Space station resupply, future U.S. military missions, commercial crewed missions for NASA, increasing Falcon 9’s launch rate, a satellite broadband constellation, preparing for Mars — it’s a lot.

Five thousand people [the current SpaceX head count] is a lot. Less than 5 percent of my staff by number is working on the LEO constellation. Actually if I’m doing math in public it’s substantially less than 5 percent. And it’s an even smaller percentage working on the Mars vehicle right now. For sure, our focus is getting Falcon 9 back to flight safely and reliably, making sure Dragon is getting upgraded appropriately to be able to fly crew next year, and Falcon Heavy as well.

Those are the three primary focuses we have.

Falcon Heavy could sometime in 2017, pending…. ? Presumably it is taking a backseat to the Falcon 9 review?

Keep in mind that Falcon Heavy is made up of building blocks of Falcon 9, so it’s not as if Falcon Heavy can jump and not be impacted by the issues that we saw.

How do you handle your launch slots for customers given you were already behind schedule before the Sept. 1 failure? What can you say to customers?

What we are saying to customers is: We were building up our production cadence, we’re building up our test cadence, and we were about ready to have two launch pads available for our customers. We should be able to launch every two weeks. We were going to catch up this year, which is another reason why this particular failure was so disappointing. But we’re about there in almost every area of production and test.

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SpaceX’s Shotwell on Falcon 9 inquiry, discounts for reused rockets and Silicon Valley’s test-and-fail ethos

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