A SpaceX employee, investigating the September 1 rocket explosion, asked for access to a roof of the building operated by the company’s long-time rival, the Washington Post reported. Still images from the video of the blast were the reason for the request.
The images show a shadow, then a white spot on the roof of a nearby building belonging to United Launch Alliance (ULA), the newspaper said citing three industry sources familiar with the investigation.
The building is used for refurbishing rocket motors and is located about a mile from the Cape Canaveral Launchpad, where the SpaceX rocket exploded. Its roof has the launchpad in a clear line of sight.
The encounter between the SpaceХ employee and the representatives of ULA was described as “cordial, not accusatory” in the report. Nevertheless, the SpaceX employee was not allowed in. ULA instead invited Air Force investigators, who found nothing suspicious on the roof.
The Falcon 9 rocket exploded during fueling ahead of an engine test fire. About a week into the explosion, SpaceX chief Elon Musk said the company did not rule out sabotage as a possible cause while describing the incident as “the most difficult and complex” in the company’s 14-year history.
Investigators have since reported that they have narrowed down the cause to a breach in the helium line of the second stage. SpaceX is being assisted by NASA and the US Air Force with the probe. Neither would comment on the ULA building visit, citing the ongoing investigation.
Still working on the Falcon fireball investigation. Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 9, 2016
SpaceX and ULA are competing for launch contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. ULA, an alliance between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, enjoyed a decades-long monopoly providing space services for the US military, until SpaceX sued the Air Force in 2014 for the right to compete. SpaceX’s cause won sympathy among some US lawmakers, who criticized ULA for its dependence on Russian-made engines used in the Atlas V rockets.
The Falcon 5 explosion has cast doubt over SpaceX’s other ambition – to provide manned space launches for NASA, according to Ars Technica. The US space agency is mulling buying trips to the International Space Station from Russia in 2019, the website reporting citing industry sources.
Since retiring the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has had no domestic capability to fly manned space mission and has purchased trips in Russian Soyuz capsules. SpaceX and Boeing are both developing capsules that would make the US a fully space-capable nation again. Boeing has pushed back its schedule from late 2017 to early 2018, and the SpaceX disaster seems to make a similar delay inevitable.
NASA planners are concerned that neither company will be able to deliver on time and are considering a Russian contingency plan. Negotiations over additional Soyuz launches would have to take place soon considering that each spaceship requires several years of planning and production time.