back to article SpaceX searches for its 'grassy knoll' of possible Falcon rocket sabotage

In its search for the reason behind last month's explosion that destroyed its Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX has vowed to leave no stone unturned. Now one of its staffers may be taking things a little too far. The doomed Falcon 9 suffered a catastrophic failure while being fueled for a static firing test. It is believed a failure in …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    downrange?

    If there is nothing but an empty field or water downrange from the rocket, a sniper could potentially attempt many shots at the rocket without fear of discovery, lowering the odds of a successful shot considerably.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: downrange?

      You'd most certainly need a spotter as well as the shooter and ideally the spotter needs to be in a better position than just sat next to the shooter. And I doubt there are all that many people in the world capable of a shot like that who are not part of some military or other. On the other hand, has anyone seen the multi-talented Jake recently? :-)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: downrange?

        I have been in the military, trained as a sniper, and I can tell you that with a rifle shooting .338Lapua, you can make a 1500-1800m shot on a fixed target without much issues. Moving target or beyond 1800m, that's when it gets difficult. And a spotter doesn't help you much in this scenario either, which btw needs to be close to the shooter or any range and other target information are not of much use.

        But then the shooter would have indeed have to have exact knowledge of an exact spot to hit, likely not larger than a coaster, in order to cause damage that would result in such explosion. Or you really have to go into J.Bond land...

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

        2. Mark 85 Silver badge

          Re: downrange?

          The .338 would work, but the .50 cal would work even better. Problem would be getting the spark needed and with the videos running, tracer or incendiary is not an option. At one point there were some .50 HE rounds but I think those were only experimental. But you're right on the target A/C... there's probably minimal sweet spots.

          If we're looking at conspiracy, 3 weeks between the explosion and the "visit" would allow someone to at least pick up any empty casings and/or beer bottles <jk>.

          However, as I recall, the strut failure on the previous big boom was detected by sound sensors. I would think they would have been operational during fueling if for no other reason then to ensure they worked. I do believe they would have picked up the sound of a bullet impacting the rocket.

          I wish Musk, et al, lots of luck on sorting this one out

          1. dapted

            Re: downrange?

            If they shot the Helium tank the explosive decompression of the Helium would compress the material that surrounds it if it is compressible. If the Helium tank is submerged in Liquid Oxygen then no compression and no heat, but if the LOX is still rising in the tank the gas surrounding the helium would compress to 5000 psi and a super hot wave will travel outward at near supersonic speed. Plenty hot enough to ignite aluminum or steel. I would also like to know where the range safety squibs are located and how many of them there are on the rocket and what explosive they are made from. Hitting some explosives with a high speed round would set them off. But again you would need to know the placement and composition of those explosives. That would take some very specific insider knowledge. Plus the target would be much smaller.

        3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: downrange?

          "I have been in the military, trained as a sniper,"

          Thanks. I was working off distant knowledge from a friend who was a police trained sniper many, many years ago (at least 20), so I assume weapons have improved a tad since then :-)

        4. ianp5

          Re: downrange?

          Even if theoretically possible the downside for getting caught is so big only someone mentally unhinged would sanction it, especially from your own building. But ... when you've eliminated the probable! I guess they have to consider it.

        5. dapted

          Re: downrange?

          Its a bit more complicated if the location of the shot is the Helium bottle as described by SpaceX. That bottle is submerged in super cooled liquid oxygen if you shoot when the rocket is full of fuel, but this one was still in the process of being filled so the bottle may have been above the rising liquid. Getting any rifle shot to travel through more than a meter of a liquid is very difficult, doing it accurately is much harder. The projectile slows down quickly and darts in unexpected directions. But if the tank were just close to full and you know the location of the Helium bottle with its 5000 Lb PSI gas punching through the aluminimum shell of the rocket and carbon fiber wrapped aluminum of the helium bottle would be easy enough for me and my .224 Weatherby Mag. or any high velocity rifle. But you would have to have inside knowledge of exactly when the rocket was filled to the correct level. That would indicate an inside job. But then again, there is a long history of industrial espionage in the Boeing/Lockheed/ULA companies.

      2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

        Re: downrange?

        Nah, if Jake would ever do something like that (which I highly doubt) there wouldn't be anything fancy-schmantzy* about it. He'd just walk right on the launch pad with a swiss army knife or a Leatherman, done.

        * Like long-range sniper rifles, lasers, hypothetical plasma guns or whatever...

    2. Voland's right hand Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: downrange?

      lowering the odds

      You mean increasing, right?

      By the way, on a stationary target this size, the odds are much higher than quoted by the Register.

      Similarly, you do not need a spotter located closer to the target - you just need a good telescope which, once again, you can accommodate on the roof of an industrial building.

      In any case, this one is extremely far fetched.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: downrange?

        >Problem would be getting the spark needed and with the videos running, tracer or incendiary is not an option.

        There was a '007 special' episode of Mythbusters in which they tried to blow up gas cylinders with bullets (a la the opening sequence of 2006's Casino Royal). Nothing went 'bang'. Of course they were using a handgun instead of anything bigger, but one assumes (I'm assuming, cos my memory isn't that good) that any spark occurs on first contact with the cylinder, i.e before there is any gas available to ignite because the puncture hasn't occurred yet. Additionally, the lead round didn't penetrate the cylinder. Also, lead anti-personal rounds don't spark (though projectiles of other metals for your bangbang-stick are available)

        1. Tsurotu

          Re: downrange?

          I think they used a slug in a shotgun and a rifle round from an m14 too with standard and tracer rounds. Nothing worked until they used a minigun in the desert.

        2. Dan Paul

          Re: downrange?

          Gas bottles are ASME certified pressure vessels and they are extremely robust.

          HOWEVER, the fuel and oxygen tanks in any missile are not designed to be as robust, only to handle the internal pressure and gravitational forces.

          You could EASILY put a hole through a Falcon 9 with a .223 caliber round!

  2. David Roberts Silver badge
    Coat

    Eliminated the obvious

    Now going for the long shots.

    1. bazza Silver badge

      Re: Eliminated the obvious

      Long shots indeed.

      Dangerous Thoughts

      For anyone to even contemplate such an explanation is not good for an organisation's culture. If this rumour that an accusation was made is actually true, whoever came up with that line of investigation should be pushed out the door quickly before that kind of reasoning becomes the standard approach to problem solving.

      As the article says, Occam's razor applies. This is a relatively young design, they have had failures before due to poor quality control, and it went bang just as they were loading it with 100s of tonnes of propellant and O2. If they don't know why it went bang then that means their telemetry isn't up to scratch, simple as, and must be improved.

      If in making improvements to their telemetry they add shock wave sensors to detect any incoming rounds, that's fine, just don't ever say why.

      If this accusation was actually made, even if privately, with little evidence it is highly risky. It'd never remain private, It’ll worry their investors who will be keen that the company as a whole behaves in a sober and professional manner (traits essential to success in the rocket business). The investors won't welcome the legal bill either should ULA choose to make something of it in the courts.

      And worse of all it'll put off customers, who really won't want to be dealing with amateurs.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Eliminated the obvious

        Broadly, I agree with you Bazza.

        However, this plot, reminiscent of a 1960's espionage B-movie, does fit Elon Musk's aesthetic (he bought the submarine Lotus from The Spy Who Loved Me, and for ages his Twitter photo was of him stroking a white cat - I kid you not).

        In the past though, SpaceX have been pretty efficient at identifying and rectifying the causes of their Rapid Unplanned Disassemblies - they have an edge over NASA in that they don't have to dig through a stack of sub-contracting manufacturers.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Eliminated the obvious

        For anyone to even contemplate such an explanation is not good for an organisation's culture. If this rumour that an accusation was made is actually true

        Did you notice that nobody is claiming that anyone at SpaceX has actually made an accusation? They were investigating an explosion, saw that *something* happened at a nearby building at that time, and asked the owner of the building if they could check it out. It's the drama-hungry public and media who have come up with the "OMG sniper!" story.

        Perhaps the event on the roof was an equipment failure caused by an electrical surge, which moments later also caused an equipment malfunction in a nearby rocket? Nah, that wouldn't be sensational enough.

      3. Haefen

        Dangerous Thoughts

        "If this accusation was actually made, even if privately, with little evidence it is highly risky. It'd never remain private,"

        These accusations are often made within security but as you point out it is never in the interest of the company to have it leak out even when proven, by security, to be true.

        And these accusations are true much more often than most people realize. Espionage, passive and active, is always a risk and even more so when a company is working in certain areas, gets large enough or can impact the flow of massive amounts of funding.

        SpaceX has a constant and ongoing espionage problem from many different sources. They think they are working with various lettered agencies in the USA but those agencies also have sources inside to ensure what they are being told is accurate. With big money comes big problems.

        Active industrial espionage takes many forms and when done properly is invisible and impossible to prove, often the evidence is at very best circumstantial. Sure sometimes a Stuxnet is found but not usually. When evidence is found it is almost never in the interest of the company to go public so that information stays with security who uses it to improve their defenses.

        SpaceX is under attack, at the very least passive surveillance attack. Others have a lot of money riding on their failure, or at least against them dominating their field. Those players have a fiduciary and in some cases national responsibility to take whatever measures they can to at least understand current status. Doesn't mean recent problems are the result of active espionage but if it was they wouldn't be telling people they suspect it.

        For example the construction of the Nicaragua Canal seems to have had some set backs, some data was lost, some deadlines missed, and all we hear is how well everything is going. I'm sure it is.

        IMO there may or may not be a sabotage problem at SpaceX but it feels to me that this story is media created and driven. Nothing to see here, resume trying to look normal.

      4. dapted

        Re: Eliminated the obvious

        You are correct, the simplest explanation is best, but also remember that just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. The last failure was blamed on a failed strut, and they did indeed find some bad struts in their inventory of hundreds or thousands of those struts. But if the struts are not carefully inventoried and serial numberd and traceable to the date and manufacturing batch nobody will know for sure if they were really defective, or if somebody simply "salted" the warehouse with defective ones. Thus sabotage might never have been ruled out on the last failure blamed on defective materials. In fact if this big bang turns out to be sabotage it may turn a light on rethinking the last failure. Sabotage is a big risk, but these are big rewards. In fact I can not think of a bigger reward for even murder than the stakes involved here. Boeing/Lockheed/ULA have been involved in Industrial Espionage legal cases in the past, in fact that is the reason they were forced to create ULA. Is sabotage really that far fetched for a company willing to hire spies and plant listening devices? If I were Mr. Musk I would be taking all sorts of security matters very seriously. Even his personal safety is at risk when there are hundreds of billions of dollars on the line. When has there ever been bigger rewards available for unlawful behavior for any individual or corporation.

    2. Adam 1 Silver badge

      Re: Eliminated the obvious

      > Now going for the long shots.

      ICBM what you did there.

      1. Swarthy Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: Eliminated the obvious

        Wow, I had completely missiled that, until you pointed it out. Thanks!

        Mine's the full metal one. --->

        1. Steve Aubrey

          Re: Eliminated the obvious

          Oh, we're not going to have to endure another round of this, are we?

  3. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge
    Mushroom

    I always figured the first little bang was from thermal expansion. Somebody would have to figure out what the flash of heat hit and whether or not it's the correct distance from the mic.

  4. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Alien

    I'm telling you...

    It was aliens. No doubt aliens who are backing ULA, because they are so costly that it holds back mankind's access to space, but still...aliens.

    (And not the ones Donald Trump fusses about.)

  5. Mikel

    Investigators investigate

    More on your nightly news at ten.

  6. MrDamage

    Who said it was ULA wanting to take out a competitor

    Maybe it was a gunman in the 140 character repository looking to take out a different competitor.

    /tinfoil hat

    1. The First Dave
      Holmes

      Re: Who said it was ULA wanting to take out a competitor

      I think it was the double-bluff - Elon knew that particular rocket was duff, so thought it would be more useful to make it look like sabotage...

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Reminds me...

    ...of the infamous truffle-squishing incident of '07:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-487722/Thorntons-chocolatier-resigns-disgrace-squishing-63-truffles-rival-store.html

    In fact maybe it's the same guy. His photo in that article looks suspiciously like a dry-run to me.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Reminds me...

      That looks like a sweet story, but have you a more savoury source than the Daily Mail? :)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Reminds me...

        The Daily Mail: Tabloid Heaven Since 1911. Purveyors of quality, speciality conspiracy theories and celebrity gossip. Gift-wrapping service available.

  8. unwarranted triumphalism Bronze badge

    Pathetic attempt at diversion

    That this was even suggested proves that elon musk is a delusional idiot with no connection to reality. He's attempting to pass the buck for his own greed and incompetence on to any random targets in his field of view.

    Just like his stupid electric cars, he's created a badly-engineered product which doesn't work, and costs lives and money; and is attempting to blame everyone else for his own failings.

    All of his borderline criminal enterprises should be shut down immediately and he should be bankrupted and held criminally liable.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pathetic attempt at diversion

      Possibly a camera on the roof. They want to find/get/expose it either for data or a red face on their competitor. Using this "excuse" to get at it.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Pathetic attempt at diversion

        >Possibly a camera on the roof. They want to find/get/expose it either for data or a red face on their competitor. Using this "excuse" to get at it.

        That is plausible. In fact, It'd be surprising to learn that ULA didn't have a camera trained on their competitor's test, if they already had a convenient vantage point (unless of course there were more suitable, publicly accessible vantage points available to them closer to the test site)

    2. hplasm Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Pathetic attempt at diversion

      Thanks for the rant.

      1. unwarranted triumphalism Bronze badge

        Re: Pathetic attempt at diversion

        I didn't know this site had turned into the elon musk fan club.

        1. Known Hero
          FAIL

          Re: Pathetic attempt at diversion

          It's far from a unwitting fan club. Members here will tend to be quite critical of his work where it is due.

          You got downvoted for a boorish attitude and blind comments.

          1. unwarranted triumphalism Bronze badge

            Re: Pathetic attempt at diversion

            Funny how everyone else here is supporting him then.

            But it's totally not his fan club.

            1. Mr Commenty McComentface

              Re: Pathetic attempt at diversion

              "Funny how everyone else here is supporting him then."

              @UT :- Downvoting you because you appear to have missed your meds/seen some billy goats does equal "supporting Musk".

              No one has (yet) said "ULA blew up our rocket", but people to appear to be trying to be very thorough in trying to figure out why a seemingly normal rocket went kaboom, which I kinda expect when it's a couple of hundred mill for the rocket alone, let alone clean up, poor PR, etc etc etc

              As for other El Reg bods and the discussion of snipers and what it would take, that's kinda normal... someone chucks a problem in here, people try and solve it. No one is actually stating that that IS what happened, merely how it could happen.

              PS you do know Musk doesn't actually personally design this stuff don't you? Just checking.

              1. unwarranted triumphalism Bronze badge

                Re: Pathetic attempt at diversion

                Don't care, I still want to see him fail.

                He has no hope and no friends apart from lefty kooks.

                1. Marshalltown

                  Re: Pathetic attempt at diversion

                  "Don't care, I still want to see him fail."

                  So, do you work for Lockheed Martin or Boeing?

    3. phuzz Silver badge
      Meh

      Re: Pathetic attempt at diversion

      The other thing to remember, this is taken from an article in the Washington Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos.

  9. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    Que?

    "... conspiracy theorists going nuts on this one for a while" ???

    Conspiracy theorists are nuts, and they never, ever stop, in my experience

    Just look at all "the moon-landing hoax" theorists. I mean, it was nearly 5 decades ago, and still these idiots go on. Love Buzz Aldrin's response seen here

    </rant>

  10. nigglec
    Coat

    Laser?

    Just a thought, but rather than concentrate on a standard rifle and slug would a strong enough laser do the job? No worries about wind or leaving behind evidence. I'd imagine that a non-moving target full of stuff that goes bang wouldn't react too well to a prolonged thermal spot. the flash seen might just be standard light reflecting off the optics/casing....

    I'm not really suggesting that ULA were really to blame but.............Okay I'll get my coat.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Laser?

      >No worries about wind

      True

      >or leaving behind evidence.

      Depends... even lasers in non-visible spectra could hit dust particles and heat them. SpaceX could well have IR cameras in operation which conceivably show a line of heated dust from enough angles to show the origin.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Laser?

        Depends... even lasers in non-visible spectra could hit dust particles and heat them. SpaceX could well have IR cameras in operation which conceivably show a line of heated dust from enough angles to show the origin.

        I was thinking a laser shark.

        Maybe the flash was them launching an invisible high-speed laser shark at the launch pad.

        It might have been close enough that heating would be minimal

  11. deconstructionist
    Holmes

    do worry chaps 5 years we all be on mars

    nothing is ever musk's fault is it ....the is guy bananas

    1. unwarranted triumphalism Bronze badge

      Re: do worry chaps 5 years we all be on mars

      He really has no idea what he's doing, and then tries to blame his failures on other people.

      1. Marshalltown

        Re: do worry chaps 5 years we all be on mars

        You probably think Bill Gates is a great programmer too. Musk doesn't need to know jack about space operations. All he needs is a staff that does, and that he has. So, why so bitter? He didn't hire you?

  12. Lotaresco Silver badge

    Starstreak

    It's pretty much what the MANPAD was designed for. It has a range of four miles.After launch, the missile accelerates to more than Mach 4, making it the fastest short-range surface-to-air missile in the world (Wikipedia).

    Starstreak

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