SpaceX Leads Probe Into Falcon 9 Rocket Explosion

The blast destroyed the 220-foot unmanned Falcon 9 rocket.
ENLARGE

The blast destroyed the 220-foot unmanned Falcon 9 rocket.


Photo:

Launch Report/Reuters

The investigation of a Falcon 9 rocket that exploded during ground tests last week highlights the primacy of industry self-regulation when commercial space operations run into trouble.

Federal authorities aren’t leading the probe into what caused the fiery blast, which destroyed the roughly 220-foot unmanned rocket and the commercial telecommunications satellite sitting on top of it. Current law reserves that authority for the booster’s manufacturer, in this case billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s closely held Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX.

Various government experts, including officials from the Air Force, Federal Aviation Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration, are members of a roughly 20-member investigative team, according to industry and government officials. So are a number of independent industry experts, though none of the participants’ names or the number of representatives from each entity have been announced.

But SpaceX’s role is paramount, these officials said, and only representatives from the company and FAA have a formal vote, according to one of these people. The final report is subject to FAA approval, on which future launch licenses depend.

Despite damage to the launchpad at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, last Thursday’s high-profile accident didn’t involve a government payload or mission. That puts it outside the direct purview of federal investigators and into this novel category of company-led probes.

The investigation is led by Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president for flight reliability, according to the person, with hundreds of other company employees helping scour data and performing analyses to get to the root cause of the blast.

The FAA has a single vote, this person said, with SpaceX having all remaining votes.

The structure and operation of the investigative group, according to the officials, reflect strict legislative restrictions on the role of federal agencies in accidents involving purely commercial space ventures.

Congress approved legislation last year reiterating that the FAA, which licenses all space launches, should take a largely hands-off approach when it comes to regulating the burgeoning commercial space industry, particularly fledgling space-tourism ventures. Lawmakers mandated the agency to focus primarily on protecting people and property on the ground, rather than ensuring the safety of passengers or crews during flights.

The vagaries of the blast itself have contributed to limited federal authority, since the event is officially classified by the FAA as a “mishap” because there were no injuries or damage to surrounding property.

SpaceX last week announced formation of the investigative team and participation of the federal agencies, but didn’t elaborate on how the members would work together. At the time, it pledged “regular updates on our progress and findings, to the fullest extent we can share publicly.”

The FAA on Thursday suggested its role was likely to be more advisory than actively shaping the investigation. “Much like aviation accident investigations, often the FAA is called up for its expertise on specific technical and regulatory matters,” the agency said.

NASA is relying on SpaceX and the Falcon 9 to continue sending cargo capsules to the international space station, and to start ferrying astronauts there later this decade. The agency has awarded more than $3.1 billion worth of contracts to SpaceX for developing vehicles and providing crew transportation. But NASA officials also aren’t likely to take the lead in directing the current probe, according to people familiar with the details. On Thursday the agency said “a NASA representative will be a member of the investigative team.”

Even when an accident befalls a mission for NASA, the agency’s current agreements with SpaceX call for the company to take the lead in determining precisely what occurred. That was the case when a previous Falcon 9 exploded in June 2015, shortly after lifting off with more than two tons of cargo destined for the space station.

NASA’s inspector general criticized that investigation, also headed by Mr. Koenigsmann, for opening the door to “questions about inherent conflicts of interest” because SpaceX ran that probe.

The Air Force, which intends to use the company’s rockets to launch future military and perhaps spy satellites, also is part of the probe. A spokeswoman for Missiles and Space Command in Los Angeles, the service’s launch contracting arm, didn’t have any immediate comment.

But in terms of detailed determinations of damage to the launch facility, other Air Force officials made it clear SpaceX has the lead. “They are assessing the pad” and the Air Force hasn’t yet been briefed about their findings, said a spokesman for the 45th Space Wing, which runs launch facilities at Cape Canaveral.

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Antares rocket destined for the space station suffered a catastrophic failure in the fall of 2014, the company led the investigation.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com