SpaceX Fired A Rifle Into A Tank Of Helium To See If Someone Sabotaged Their Rocket

A still image of the moment the rocket exploded in less than a tenth of a second. USLaunchReport/YouTube

Back in September 2016, a SpaceX rocket exploded during a routine test in what were – at the time – mysterious circumstances. So mysterious, in fact, that SpaceX apparently thought the rocket may have been shot by a gun.

That’s the claim in a new book being released on March 20 called The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, written by Christian Davenport.

In the book, Davenport says that SpaceX investigated all avenues for how the rocket at Cape Canaveral in Florida may have exploded. This included the possibility that it had been sabotaged.

“We literally thought someone had shot the rocket,” CEO Elon Musk said in summer 2017, according to an excerpt from the book on The Washington Post. “We found things that looked like bullet holes, and we calculated that someone with a high-powered rifle, if they had shot the rocket in the right location, the exact same thing would have happened.”

The rocket appeared to have exploded when a helium tank in its upper stage failed. So to replicate this, SpaceX acquired a rifle and shot another helium tank, to see what happened.

“[W]e were having a hard time blowing these bottles up,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said, writes Davenport.

“So, instead, they got a rifle, ‘and we shot it,’ Shotwell said. ‘And the signature on the bottle was just like the signature on the bottle that we recovered. That was an easy test to do. It’s Texas, right, everybody’s got a gun and you can blow stuff up.’”

The explosion again, in all its explodey glory

The possibility of sabotage was so alluring that they even sent an employee to the facility of one of their rivals at Cape Canaveral, the United Launch Alliance (ULA). They asked if they could inspect the roof, as it had a direct line of sight to the rocket, and a video had shown a shadow and a bright white spot on the roof. The ULA refused, but Air Force investigators found nothing wrong.

Ultimately, however, the idea of sabotage was ruled out. SpaceX’s investigation found that the explosion was likely caused by a build-up of oxygen in one of the rocket’s three helium tanks, known as composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs), “leading to ignition and the subsequent failure of the COPV”.

It’s somewhat interesting, though, that SpaceX would even consider sabotage. The company has long been regarded as giving the launch industry a mighty shake-up, not least with the launch of their Falcon Heavy rocket last month. Perhaps you can’t blame them for being a little bit cautious.


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