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The video below of Pythom Space's first rocket test has raised a few eyebrows

The video prompted hundreds of replies on Twitter, including some from rather horrified rocket scientists. "We knew better as untrained college students," said Jordan Noone, the co-founder of Relativity Space.

Pythom “Micro jump”

What exactly did they get wrong with this test?

Note: The Pythom Space CEO did eventually respond to the original Ars Technica story linked above. It does offer their own take on some of the issues raised there and elsewhere (including some of the points in the answer below)

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    $\begingroup$ Besides the part where they are standing beside an untested rocket engine that uses toxic propellants without any safety equipment? Nothing at all. $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ Their own report says they were tired and worriedly racing against bad weather. Aviators, and mariners for centuries before, can vouch that that's asking for trouble. $\endgroup$ Apr 12 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ @CamilleGoudeseune: Pilots call this "get-there-itis" and it is one of the most dangerous psychological factors in incidents. Ignoring safety protocols and procedures and/or "your gut" / instincts because you are tired and want to get to your destination. $\endgroup$ Apr 13 at 7:03
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    $\begingroup$ From their own website, "Pythom's "green" propellant combination of furfuryl alcohol and WFNA (nitric acid) is much kinder to people and the environment and a major reason for our choice of it." Did they read the MSDS on those substances? Furfuryl alcohol is rather toxic, and white fuming nitric acid is even worse. I would need 100s of palms to properly face-palm myself regarding how bad this was, from beginning (the hoist with ropes and a person underneath) to the end (people running away from the toxic cloud). $\endgroup$ Apr 13 at 11:04
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    $\begingroup$ Continuing from their website, "The two of us, Pythom founders and authors of this entry, have done four unguided expeditions to Everest, three unguided and unsupported full-length expeditions to the South- and North Poles, and sailed across the Atlantic from Europe to South America. During our expeditions, we lost many friends to the elements." So they are adrenaline junkies with little concern for safety and no concern for the law (several of those expeditions they describe are illegal). Self-claimed lack of expertise in aerospace engineering. Perfect recipe for how to do things wrong. $\endgroup$ Apr 13 at 11:20

1 Answer 1

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The easy-to-spot stuff:

  1. (assumed) Improper transportation of hazardous materials. Both white fuming nitric acid and furfuryl alcohol are considered hazardous materials; none of the vehicles in the video appears to have a hazmat placard, the rocket is not an approved hazmat container, and the fuel containers seen in other videos are emphatically not approved.
  2. No personal protective gear. Nitric acid and furfurly alcohol are both toxic, and heavy loads are being lifted. Nobody is seen wearing any sort of protective gear, not even hard hats or safety glasses.
  3. Insecure rigging when lifting the test object upright. A strap, particularly one being pulled at a sharp angle, is far less safe than a proper lifting point.
  4. Bad angle when lifting the test object upright. This puts excess loads on things, increasing the risk of a fall or failure.
  5. Using unbraced legs as a pivot point when lifting the test object upright. You can see they're on the verge of buckling.
  6. (assumed) Lifting the test object while already fueled. In the event of a fall, this ensures an explosion if the tanks rupture, as the fuels are hypergolic.
  7. Having people stand under a suspended load. If the test object falls, this will cause serious injury or death to at least two people.
  8. Using a truck to pull the lifting cable. This provides far less control than a proper winch.
  9. Having personnel in the blast area of the test object. In the event of an failure, this makes it highly likely that they will be engulfed in the fireball, struck by debris, or poisoned by fuel vapors.
  10. Having personnel in the exhaust area of the test object. Even during normal operation, they will be exposed to nitric acid, furfuryl alcohol, and assorted nitrogen oxides, all of which are highly toxic.
  11. Having unnecessary equipment in the test area. In the event of a failure, this can become additional flying debris.
  12. Not properly securing the test object. In the event of higher-than-expected performance, this will become self-propelled debris; in the event of a premature shutdown, the resulting hop-and-crash will rupture the fuel tanks and cause an explosion.
  13. Not providing a flight termination system. In the event that the test object becomes airborne, they have no way of keeping it from leaving the test area.
  14. (assumed) Insufficient fire-extinguishing equipment on site. None of the area views show a pumper truck or other equipment capable of dealing with a brush fire ignited by 15+ kg of hypergolic fuels.
  15. Improper fire-extinguishing equipment. At one point, you can see what appears to be an ordinary dry-chemical fire extinguisher. This should not be used when dealing with nitric acid.
  16. Oxidizer-rich shutdown. You can see see the reddish cloud of nitric-acid byproducts at the end of the burn; this is likely the result of the oxidizer reacting with the engine.
  17. (assumed) No post-burn decontamination of the area. The celebratory post-burn shot shows no sign of cleanup. Combined with the oxidizer-rich shutdown, this means they're likely walking through an area contaminated with nitric acid.
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    $\begingroup$ The developers seem to think furfuryl alcohol and white fuming nitric acid are green propellants. My parents gave me a chemistry set ages ago. I somehow managed to make red fuming nitric acid with it. I was ten years old or so. Ten year olds by definition are naive, stupid, and have no regard for safety. Those kinds of home chemistry sets are no longer legal, for good reason. White fuming nitric acid is even worse than is red fuming nitric acid. $\endgroup$ Apr 13 at 11:39
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    $\begingroup$ I'm sure you missed a point or two. They only did seventeen things wrong? But super plus one. As one redditor sarcastically put it, "Now this company will get all the attention it so richly deserves." $\endgroup$ Apr 13 at 11:59
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    $\begingroup$ Might also add: "Publicly posting this video on YouTube, setting a bad example that will be seen by potentially millions of people, some of whom may try to copy their reckless behavior..." $\endgroup$ Apr 13 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ Worth noting that most of these aren't particularly "space" or "rocket" safety protocols, they are basic things that need to be done on a building site or a small-scale chemical or industrial process. $\endgroup$
    – djr
    Apr 14 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ @djr, if you want rocket safety, it's likely that a successful launch would have violated every clause of the NAR high-power rocket safety code. (The actual event only violated clauses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 12.) $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Apr 14 at 21:50

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