There have been two accidents in the past week, the Antares launch of Orbital Science's CRS-3 mission, and the test flight of SpaceShip Two that went awry, resulting in the death of one of the two pilots. Rockets being what they are, both events were extreme, involving the complete destruction of the ships involved. Space being what it is, both got a lot of attention from the press - people have a lot of feelings about space exploration.

Are procedures directed at proper documentation and data collection in the event of an accident begun when they occur? What methodologies are typically used? Because of the way such events tend to unfold, is it generally the case that few conclusions can be drawn until considerable analysis has been done?

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    $\begingroup$ It is normal for spacecraft, just like airplanes, to produce a lot of telemetry data while they are in use. (Hence "avionics power nominal".) That data probably plays a major role in investigating any accidents. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 4 '14 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ It surely must. However obviously in neither recent case did it give the people monitoring them sufficient warning to do anything, if it gave them any warning at all. So it seems likely that telemetry information isn't going to show what caused these accidents, and maybe that is typical where explosions are involved, no? That is what i meant by 'the way such events tend to unfold'. I would have thought looking closely at what can be recovered afterwards is the key. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Nov 4 '14 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ Just because there isn't time to do a detailed analysis of the data in real-time and for a human to take corrective action, doesn't mean the data can't be useful to determine after the fact what went wrong. Aircraft "black boxes" (flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders) work the same way, allowing detailed post-mortem analysis. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 4 '14 at 15:19

SpaceShipTwo is (more or less) an airplane. As such, the crash is going to be investigated like any other airplane crash by the National Transportation Safety Board, probably in cooperation with the FAA.

The Antares explosion, on the other hand, doesn't fall under the jurisdiction of the NTSB. The investigation will probably be handled by Orbital Science (as the owner of the rocket); NASA may conduct an investigation of their own.

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    $\begingroup$ The FAA is also involved in the Antares crash analysis: orbital.com/NewsInfo/MissionUpdates/Orb-3 $\endgroup$ – Rikki-Tikki-Tavi Nov 4 '14 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ An interesting example issue would be - who or what investigated the Challenger disaster, say? Has there been any change to the official process (if any - perhaps it was all adhoc) since then? $\endgroup$ – Fattie Nov 5 '14 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBlow Challenger had a special ad-hoc Presidential Commission as well as a review by the congressional committee responsible for NASA. Columbia had an independent committee set up just for it as well, but that was under NASA's umbrella. Same with Apollo 1. $\endgroup$ – cpast Feb 11 '15 at 23:44

The process is like any other careful investigation. You gather all the data you can. Here it includes documentation of the build of the equipment, test data along the way, telemetry during the event. Sometimes it is quickly obvious what went wrong, sometimes not. Even if the cause of the immediate failure is easy to find (say the combustion chamber overpressured-that might come directly from telemetry), finding the root cause can be much harder. Sometimes it is not obvious what data you want. It is only after you have looked at the first data you gathered that you note there are other questions raised.

  • $\begingroup$ I guess, the question is specifically who and what agency would be responsible? $\endgroup$ – Fattie Nov 5 '14 at 9:13

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