While the world does not need any more conspiracy theories (even if a few might actually be true), the latest one is that the Falcon 9 on-pad explosion on 1 September, which destroyed the Israeli comsat AMOS-6, was a deliberate act of sabotage. Fast-moving objects seen near the rocket just before and after the explosion are alleged to be large-calibre bullets or cannon shells, rather than birds as originally believed. In other words, the “smoking gun” (cause) that the accident investigators are looking for might really be a smoking gun. In reality the latest theory is that a helium tank exploded for an as yet unknown reason.
A powerful rifle firing a bullet of, say, .50 inch calibre, or even a 20mm cannon shell, could cause a fuelled rocket to explode if it hits it. And while the rocket’s acoustic detectors were not apparently switched on, a strange noise (a bullet impact?) was heard just before the explosion. Of course, security around the US Air Force launch base is very tight, with movement detectors even on the beaches of Cape Canaveral. As such, the range for such a rifle shot would have to be considerable – say 2km or so – and surely someone would have heard the supersonic crack?
Let us assume it was a small shell or large bullet. Now for the suspects. We should look not only for those who might hold a grudge against Elon Musk or SpaceX, but also for those who, in Cicero’s “cui bono?” (who benefits?) question, could hope to gain from the failure.
So who would the suspects be?
While he has his admirers, the driven and tough SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, also has his detractors (including some ex-employees). Some are both admirers and detractors.
So was it the butler who done it?
Surely no current or former ex-employee, no matter how embittered, would be tempted to act against our Elon… not even his butler (assuming he has one).
Nor is it likely to be investors in his SpaceX or Tesla firms who have, so far, done very nicely thank you. That said, given that Pascal Jaussi, head of the moribund S3 start up air-launch company, was recently very seriously assaulted in a fire attack, nothing can be ruled out.
Perhaps it is nothing to do with Elon Musk at all. There is, of course, the Israeli connection to consider – after all the AMOS-6 satellite was on top of the exploding rocket.
On a less serious note, what about Elon’s ex-wives? Hmmm….maybe. But they would probably want to stay on good terms with the billionaire just in case Elon wants to remarry them.
What about SpaceX’s launch competitors?
Not sure if Arianespace head, Stephane Israel, is that good a shot. Mind you, Israel has noted that Arianespace might fit an extra launch into its schedule to take advantage of delays in SpaceX’s own launch plans.
Perhaps it is those irritated NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) Florida residents who might be fearful of reusable rockets heading back towards their homes. Well, at least, fearful about those reusable rocket stages that don’t head down-range for landings on a barge.
Then again, it could be the cartoon character Deputy Dawg, envious of his sidekick Muskie’s new found fame and wealth.
Still, until the formal investigation (which, according to Musk is having “difficulty”) comes to its conclusions we will have to wait for the answer. And only then will it be time to make a commissioning visit to 221b Baker Street.
Update on 3 October 2016: Since this piece was written, it has emerged that SpaceX requested that roofs within range of the launch pad were searched, including those on buildings belonging to its competitor ULA (United Launch Alliance). Perhaps there is something in this conspiracy theory after all.
Updated on 18 October 2016: Space News has a transcript of Elon Musk making a presentation to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in which he identifies the possibility of a bullet strike: “We can exactly replicate what happened on the launch pad if someone shoots the rocket. We don’t think that is likely this time around, but we are definitely going to have to take precautions against that in the future. We looked at who would want to blow up a SpaceX rocket. That turned out to be a long list.”
This was probably taken from our list above! 🙂
Post script: On his way to the IAC 2016 Guadalajara event where Elon Musk was presenting his Mars plan, your correspondent visited Las Vegas for the first time. In between those other traditional Las Vegas pursuits (highlights: horse riding, Grand Canyon, Craps, and tassles 😉 ), your one time school rifle shooting team correspondent had a go on a .50 inch calibre rifle at a gun range. Yes – it has a kick but not an unacceptable one. By the way, in case you are wondering, your sharp shooting correspondent has an alibi (he was in London at the time).
More painful to use was the powerful “Dirty Harry” Smith and Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver that your correspondent has long suggested should be stowed on Soyuz spacecraft instead of the “puny” 9mm Makarov semi-automatic pistol. That little semi-automatic, which is carried by cosmonauts to ward off hostile animals lest their Soyuz capsule lands off course, might actually just annoy a charging grizzly bear rather than actually stopping one. Of course, if there are several bears, wolves or lions around, then a World War 2 .30 calibre machine gun (also tried out by this writer) might be best of all, even if it is a tad unsporting.