CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. - Last week, the 45th Space Wing’s Incident Management Team responded to the Falcon 9 Static Test Fire anomaly on Space Launch Complex 40. The explosion occurred Sept. 1 at approximately 9:07 a.m. as many of us were just returning from our morning meetings. Minutes later I got the call … it’s the call no one wants to hear, but one for which we constantly train.
The call came over the safety net, followed by a call from the Fire Chief …“There’s been an explosion on Pad 40.” We immediately dispatched fire trucks to a staging position and began evacuating all nearby facilities. Next step was to activate our Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Emergency Operations Center (EOC), a joint team comprised of military, government civilians and contracted personnel from across the 45th Space Wing. This team provides expertise in many critical functional areas so I manage the response phase of the operation.
Since the incident occurred during a planned hazardous operation, our customer, SpaceX, had coordinated with members of the 45th Security Forces Squadron to clear a predetermined safe zone known as a “Blast Danger Area” to prevent any injuries in the event that an anomaly would occur. Because the BDA had been established, my Pad Safety representative was able to verify that the BDA was clear prior to the start of the test which provided us with the good news that no one was injured within that safe zone. Security was able to immediately account for their security officers who formed the cordon of the BDA and so very quickly I was assured that we had 100 percent accountability with no injuries. With that information, I knew that our team could focus on the situation at the pad, or so I thought.
As our team gathered in the EOC we conducted an initial briefing to establish a baseline of where each Emergency Support Function and Subject Matter Expert was in regards to their individual response efforts and where they could assist. The ESFs are functions such as the fire department, security, emergency management, and SMEs are representatives from each of our range users, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Pad Safety and a host of others who contribute valuable insight to this dynamic response.
While you might think our immediate concern was the fires on the pad and their sources, my civil engineer representative informed me that during the explosion, the deluge system had been damaged and most of the water was being shot up into the air rather than being dispersed across the pad as designed. The SpaceX rep informed me that while the deluge wasn’t functioning optimally it was still helping to suppress the fire somewhat. That was fine except for one thing -- our 1.2 million gallon tank was being depleted at a rapid rate and there was no way to refill the tanks fast enough to sustain the output. If the tanks ran dry then the motors to the pumps would burn up, which would render the deluge system inoperable for other launch pads meaning our upcoming ULA launch might then be in danger.
Another issue I had to immediately consider were the many different high-pressure systems on the pad and whether or not they had been compromised and how to bring the pressures down if needed. Our team and I decided to take a multitask approach as we decided to send in our Initial Response Team to shut down the pumps and turn off one of the high-pressure systems that could be accessed from outside the perimeter of the launch pad.
No sooner had we accomplished the securing of the pumps when I was approached by another one of our range users who explained they were losing pressure on the chillers at a neighboring launch complex. Without those chillers the spacecraft for the next launch would be lost. Needless to say at this point I had to reestablish our priorities and get a team working on a way to get our IRT into Space Launch Complex 41 to allow access for technicians to enter in order to make the necessary repairs.
As we were reviewing the plan, word came in from Pad 41 that all of the pressures were lost and technicians had to get to the spacecraft immediately. This is a situation when good working relationships with our counterparts at Kennedy Space Center came into play. We were able to coordinate with the KSC EOC for access through their roadblocks and get the required support to the spacecraft in plenty of time to not only save the spacecraft, but to keep the planned launch on schedule.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of our response was after the fires were out. This is when it’s time to go in and clear the launch pad of any hazardous debris. Naturally, there may be pieces of jagged metal or broken blocks of concrete lying around, but there are also remnants of hazardous commodities as well as the possibility of unexploded ordnance on scene. A team of trained Air Force experts consisting of EOD, Fire Department, and Environmental Health and Pad Safety personnel held the perimeter of the launch complex in order to assess the situation from a closer vantage point throughout the day. EOD Airmen are trained to detect, dispose and render safe any possible explosive threats while Environmental Health personnel continued to monitor the air quality to ensure it was safe for emergency responders and the general public. Fire department and range safety officials monitored the liquid holding tanks for flare ups and pressure issues. Clearing the pad is extremely dangerous and requires careful planning by all of the members of the response team. EOD, environmental health, the fire department, pad safety and our SpaceX representatives were all instrumental in putting together a carefully orchestrated plan, which allowed each function to accomplish their task in a safe manner that allowed the next function to proceed in a much safer environment.
It’s also important to mention that all of these tasks were tackled by our response teams during almost constant lightning and tornado watches, followed by the pending Tropical Storm Hermine that was coming across Florida. Managing a crisis is one thing, piling on significant weather events only added to the overall complexity of the entire day.
Because emergency response is so dangerous, there are times when we must be willing to think a little outside of the box. For example, valves needed to be shut down in order to make them safe. One course of action we considered was to use one of the robots operated by our EOD team. While we ultimately decided not to go that route it’s important to note how our team works through these scenarios to solve various problems that present themselves during such an incident. One suggestion we did pursue was one made by the EOC Manager – that we should explore the possibility of getting one of NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the air. Once again, our KSC counterparts shared resources with us and were more than eager to support. I had the SpaceX rep meet them at the staging area with a map of the pad and suggested flight paths covering areas of particular concern to be filmed. It wasn’t too long after that first phone call until our incident commander was reviewing footage from the flight over the pad prior to the IRT, making its initial entry onto the pad itself. This partnership of sharing resources between mission partners allowed us to quickly provide the IRT with a lot of visual details of what they would encounter at the pad and when in a dynamic situation like this, having a visual picture adds to our capability and strengthens our overall response timelines and efforts.
As darkness came, EOC members continued to monitor the situation throughout the night to ensure the safety of our personnel and the public.
It was a rewarding experience from the standpoint as an EOC Director to “sit in the seat” and be supported by so many highly-trained and skilled professionals. Responding to a contingency is never something we want to do, but it is good to know that when we have to, I have a team that can work through the chaos in a calm and calculated manner. A team that sets priorities in a dynamic environment, accomplishing tasks while keeping our people and the public safe.
This is a capability that you don’t want to have to use, but you’re glad is there. Space is inherently dangerous … on this day we were faced with a difficult challenge, but one we were ready for. Moving forward, there will be some rebuilding that is necessary, but everyone went home safe to their families that night and woke up the next morning ready to go at it again.
Our range is comprised of the most knowledgeable, professional and committed personnel in the launch business today. This is what makes our range unique and speaks to our commitment to providing assured access to space.