Elon Musk: SpaceX Got 'Complacent' With its Launch Successes

Musk said that a faulty third party strut caused last month's crash.

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Jul 20 2015, 7:03pm

Image: SpaceX/Flickr

SpaceX founder Elon Musk believes that a faulty steel strut in the second stage of the company's Falcon 9 rocket caused last month's crash during an International Space Station resupply mission. The company says it won't fly again "before September" but still has no timeline to return to launch.

Musk said that the strut, which held down helium tanks in the rocket, came loose, allowing a helium tank to run wild in the rocket.

"The strut holding down one of the helium bottles appears to have snapped," Musk said in a conference call with reporters Monday. "As a result, we've seen a lot of helium get into the upper stage oxygen tank, which caused an overpressure event quite quickly."

Musk stressed that the findings were preliminary and that the company is working with the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, and the US Air Force on finalizing the company's assessment. Musk didn't say when Falcon 9, or SpaceX, would fly again. He said that he doesn't expect it to impact a manned mission, which is scheduled to take place sometime in 2017.

Musk said the company is taking specific steps to make sure that, even if another one of its rockets fail, the cargo (or humans) onboard won't be destroyed. He said that the company's capsule, called Dragon, is going to be equipped with software to "save itself."

"Dragon survived the second stage ignition and continued to communicate until it got out of range. If software had initiated the parachute deployment, the Dragon spacecraft would have survived," Musk said. "For future missions we're including contingency software, so that the Dragon will tend to save itself…we could have saved Dragon if we had the right software there."

Prior to last month's launch, SpaceX was singularly focused on attempting to land the first stage of its rocket on a drone boat so that it could be reused. Now, the company is trying to prove that it can recover from a disaster and can return to flight.

"It's the first time we've had a failure in seven years so, to some degree, the company as a whole got a little complacent," he said. "Especially with all the successes in a row, I think this is an important lesson and something we'll take with us into the future."

Musk said that many of the company's employees joined in recent years, after the company's initial failures while designing the original Falcon 1 rocket.

"When you only experience success, you don't learn to fear failure," Musk said.

SpaceX famously makes most of its rocket parts in house, which is one of the reasons why its able to fly so cheaply. But the faulty strut, according to Musk, is a third-party part that will be subject to more stringent testing in the future. Musk said it's infeasible to build the strut in-house and would not name the supplier of the strut.

"It will result in some cost increases to the rocket, but not a significant amount and nothing that should affect the actual price of the vehicle," he said. "So far, the investigation is not showing any failure issues so we're looking closely for any near misses … it's an odd failure mode."

Outside of the immediate aftermath of the crash, it's been a really silent three weeks for the company: Musk has said that the crash was a "downer," but little information had been made public about how SpaceX would proceed and about what actually caused the crash.

In the days following the crash, both NASA and SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said that they don't expect the crash to drastically alter the company's plan to fly a commercial crew to the International Space Station in 2017. There has also been no word on whether the Air Force plans to make SpaceX jump through additional hoops before allowing the company to fly military satellites into space.

Before last month's disaster, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket had flown 18 consecutive successful missions. Marco Caceres, a space industry analyst at the Teal Group told me at the time that SpaceX's track record means that, as long as the company could identify the problem, customers should continue using it confidently.

"I think Falcon 9 has earned the trust that its customers have had," Caceres said. "It is now no longer an outsider in the industry—it's enough of an establishment player that the government has to give it the benefit of the doubt."