SMC Conducting Independent Assessment of SpaceX’s Falcon 9

The Air Force is still reviewing the results of SpaceX's investigation into a Sept. 1, 2016 Falcon 9 explosion, shown here. Screenshot from US Launch Report video.

Despite the Falcon 9 rocket’s return to flight with a commercial launch on Jan. 14, the Air Force is still reviewing SpaceX’s investigation of a Sept. 1, 2016, explosion that halted Falcon 9 launches for more than four months.

The Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles AFB, Calif., is “currently conducting its own independent assessment of the SpaceX investigation,” SMC commander Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves told Air Force Magazine Monday. The Center is also performing its own assessment of Falcon 9 failure, with focus on determining root cause and all corrective actions needed to support National Security Space missions.” The investigation is being conducted “per SMC normal process.”

Greaves said SMC is satisfied with the results of the SpaceX internal investigation “for the purposes of safety return to flight for commercial missions,” and that “the available data does support the conclusions and planned corrective actions of the SpaceX report.” But while the Falcon 9 is cleared for commercial missions, Greaves said the SMC investigation “may or may not require SpaceX to perform additional work or corrective actions prior to a NSS mission.”

SpaceX’s internal investigation found that the September explosion was caused by the pooling and ignition of liquid fuel in the second stage oxygen tank. The safety of the Falcon 9’s rapid fueling process has been questioned by some space experts, and Greaves said “these methods are still under evaluation by SMC.”

Lawmakers have also taken a cautious approach to SpaceX’s return to flight. In late September, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) wrote a letter, signed by nine other members of Congress, asking the Air Force to reconsider SpaceX’s NSS launch certification because the company’s investigation “lacked the openness taxpayers would expect.”

At the time of Falcon 9’s January return to launch, Coffman told Air Force Magazine, “I am glad that SpaceX believes it has identified the cause of the malfunction that resulted in the explosion.” He warned, however, that he remained “opposed to any manned flights or flights involving taxpayer-funded payloads until the design fixes proposed by SpaceX to the Falcon 9 are thoroughly tested and verified by an independent entity.”

Greaves did not say when SMC’s assessment would be completed.