As SpaceX's investigation of a Falcon 9 rocket explosion on September 1 drags into its second month, rumours are flying that this may have been more than a random technical failure. According to a Washington Post report, SpaceX is considering the possibility of sabotage. In a Holmesian twist to the investigation of the sudden fireball that eviscerated a Falcon 9 rocket, a $US95 million ($123.8 million) internet satellite and a chunk of Cape Canaveral's launch pad 40, a SpaceX employee recently requested rooftop access to a building owned by competing rocket consortium United Launch Alliance. As industry officials who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Washington Post, SpaceX was following up on "something suspicious" it had seen while reviewing video footage of the rocket explosion — a weird shadow and a white spot on the roof of the ULA building, which sits about 1.6km from the launch pad.
According to the Washington Post's unnamed experts, SpaceX was denied access to the rooftop, which was instead investigated by Air Force officials who found no evidence of a connection to the September 1 explosion. Gizmodo reached out to SpaceX for more information and received the following statement:
The Accident Investigation Team has an obligation to consider all possible causes of the anomaly, and we aren't commenting on any specific potential cause until the investigation is complete. A preliminary review of the data and debris suggests a breach in the second stage's helium system, but the cause of the breach is still unknown. We have sought all available data to support the investigation in a timely manner following the anomaly, as expected for any responsible investigation.
SpaceX's official line — that it's simply trying to leave no stone unturned — may well be true. But that hasn't stopped the internet from offering up its own conspiracy theories, including that maybe a guy with a rifle shot the rocket from a kilometre and a half away. (After all, Musk did say his company is trying to figure out the source of a "quieter bang sound" a few seconds before the fireball!)
So, um, SpaceX is looking for a sniper that shot the rocket, maybe from a nest at top of competitor's building... https://t.co/NeKMGUzRT0
— SwiftOnSecurity (@SwiftOnSecurity) October 2, 2016
I'd take any theories of company-directed sabotage with a very healthy dose of scepticism right now. While it's true that ULA and SpaceX have had their share of spats, and that the two are now directly competing for NASA contracts, the risks of such an operation hardly seem to outweigh the short-term benefit of making SpaceX look bad. Plus, shooting a rocket from a rooftop a kilometre and a half away is not exactly a discreet way to sabotage a competitor. Why not stick a mole in the company and make it look like an inside job?
Then again, as Elon Musk noted during his Martian colonisation speech last week, SpaceX has already investigated all obvious possibilities. "What remains are the less probable answers," he said.
A ULA spokesperson responded to Gizmodo's request for comment in an email, stating that "ULA cooperated with the Air Force's 45th Space Wing, and nothing associated with the SpaceX accident was found." (The 45th Space Wing commands Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.)