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For want of a stainless steel nut

The official report on the SpaceX Falcon-1 launch termination at Kwajalein in the Pacific has been released and as it turns out, the problem was not human error after all. it was subsurface corrosion, possibly due to the tropical ocean climate and galvanic action, of a single nut on a fuel pump.

You can read more about it here.

Elon Musk’s next launch is now scheduled for November.

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3 comments to For want of a stainless steel nut

  • Musk joked that the stainless steel nuts they are now going to are actually cheaper than the aluminum nuts that failed, though the heavier steel nuts means a loss of a pound or two of payload in orbit, which at a couple thousand bucks per pound, is a hefty price to pay, though not as expensive as not reaching orbit…

  • llamas

    I read this and laughed – not at the unfortunate loss of a promising experiment, but at the underlying truism.

    Being of a mechanical engineering persuasion myself, I’ve seen this sort of thing so many times that I’m thinking of formulating it into a Rule – when investigating failure, start with the smallest, cheapest, most-conventional components and work upwards. The amazing rocket science is usually not the problem – that’s been analysed and engineered to a fare-thee-well. Failure is often found in the trivial, mundane, commodity components or subsystems. Corrosion and material-incompatibility problems are often at the top of the list – these kinds of things, especially at the level of commodity-type items, are often overlooked.

    I think that a lot of this may be due to the reducing level of real-world experience of many mechanical engineers. They can drive sophisticated analysis and modelling engines like virtuosi, but they don’t know that you don’t mix metal A with metal B, or that this sealant plus that gas = fire, or that that plating is not allowed in the EU, and so forth.

    Steel – even stainless steel – and aluminum are a mixture that always needs to be approached with care. Tried to take those fancy alloy wheels off the cast-iron hubs lately? Then you know what I mean. I suspect that this connection was designed by someone who made sure that it fit, but knew no more than that.

    Maybe if more young engineers learned the basic principle that they are at war with nature and all its forces, as well as with the entire population of people who will ever interact with their design, and that there’s always something or something trying to actively confound their design, and that nature has infinite time and patience, we wouldn’t see so many of these ‘for want of a nail . . .’ failures.



  • tranio

    exactly , my son was wondering why on his motor boat the radio would work but he could not lower the motor or start it. He spent hours worrying about the ignition switch etc. The problem , the corroded connection to the battery, a $2 visit to the Canadian Tire store for a new one solved the problem.