Members of the 45th Space Wing’s Incident Management Team observe the ongoing conflagration at SpaceX’s SLC-40. Credit: 45th Space Wing
It would seem that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was in much greater danger of being lost than had been initially disclosed. The 45th Space Wing released a recounting of events from the morning of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 loss, and the incredible efforts by the Incident Management Team to ensure the safety of area personnel and the greater public, as well as likely saving the launch of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, if not the spacecraft itself.
Though early information from news and industry sources indicated no appearance of damage or danger to the Atlas V rocket, or its payload, from the ongoing conflagration at SpaceX’s nearby SLC-40, there may very well have been significant damage to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) infrastructure that put the NASA mission at considerable risk.
According to the release, the explosion at SLC-40 damaged the water deluge system at that pad, causing it to “hemorrhage” water at a rate greater than could be replenished by the pumps. Had the pumps run dry, the motors could have burned out, rendering them inoperable. The deluge system that supplies SLC-40 also supplies ULA’s SLC-41, which is where the Atlas V rocket, carrying OSIRIS-REx, was set to launch just a week later.
The deluge system is a critical safety component for launch pad operations, and is used to dampen acoustic energy and provide cooling in order to protect pad infrastructure, and the launch vehicle, during liftoff. Had the system been unavailable, the launch would have been postponed until repairs could be effected, potentially impacting the mission had it not been able to launch during the window of favorable orbital alignment between Earth and the asteroid Bennu. Luckily, the 45th Space Wing’s Initial Response Team (IRT) was able to prevent this from happening.
More worryingly, though, is that the release indicates that the chillers providing cooling services for the spacecraft at SLC-41 (presumably OSIRIS-REx, though it’s not explicitly named in the piece) had lost all pressure, endangering the spacecraft itself. It’s not clear in the release if this failure was caused by the explosion of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, or if it was simply a coincident occurrence.
Nevertheless, these distressing events are in stark contrast to the reports that came out in the days following stating the rocket and spacecraft had passed their reviews and the countdown was progressing as scheduled. While true, those releases – by omission – painted a much rosier picture of the conditions at SLC-41 following the SpaceX incident than the 45th Space Wing’s release suggests.
In the end, the quick action by highly-trained personnel may have saved the OSIRIS-REx mission, and it’s a testament to their efforts, as well as those supporting the launches for their respective companies, that there was no loss of life or greater damage.
I highly recommend that one reads the release from the 45th Space Wing.