1. Could you address a recent story that SpaceX suspected 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.
2. NASA’s 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 Sept. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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 — we might get a little bit more. But in general, it’s about 10 percent right now.
5. 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.
6. 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 five 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 five 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.
7. 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.