On February 23, 2022, an OSHA Inspection was opened after a SpaceX employee was injured during a test of the Raptor V2 engine. The incident left the employee in a coma for months. Though the incident resulted in a rather disastrous outcome, these hazards are not unknown or unusual for spaceflight testing.
The Raptor V2 engine is liquid methane and liquid oxygen engine which will power both the Starship vehicle and the Super Heavy booster that will carry Starship. The engine notably comes in two variants, surface Raptor and vacuum Raptor. The former is designed and optimized to operate at sea level while the other, the vacuum Raptor, is optimized to operate in the vacuum of space. Starship will utilize three of both variants of the engine while the Super Heavy booster will use 33 sea-level Raptors to produce the most thrust of any rocket in history.
The OSHA investigation reported the following:
Employee Suffers Head Trauma When Struck By Cover
At 12:44 p.m. on January 18, 2022, an employee, an integration technician, was performing pneumatic pressure checks on a Raptor V2 Engine while at the Integration Stand. The final step in the pressure check operation, venting, was done for the first time using an automated program as opposed to the normal manual method that had been used in previous operations. Immediately after initiating the automated venting, the employee was struck by the fuel controller cover which broke free from the controller module. The controller cover had sheared at the vertical to horizontal beveled seam, liberating the cover face from the assembly. The employee suffered a skull fracture and head trauma and was hospitalized in a coma for months.
As of October 18, 2022, the case for this incident is still open and ongoing. As a result of the incident, SpaceX has been fined $18,400 for the safety violations. As the incident is open, this amount could be increase or decreased, and other penalties could be assessed. California’s Department of Industrial Relations said the injuries the worker experienced affected his head, respiratory, as well as upper and lower extremities. The worker has reportedly woken from their coma but is still hospital-bound requiring medical support. It’s also reported that SpaceX usually does root cause analysis after incidents, but current reports indicate that it has not released an analysis related to this.
Hazards in spaceflight are nothing new. With such high-powered and high-energy systems, any small error can result in horrible consequences. For example, in 2007, RocketMotorTwo exploded during ground testing by Scaled Composites, resulting in three employees being killed and three badly injured by shrapnel. The explosion occurred after the nitrous oxide oxidizer spontaneously ignited, leading to the explosion.
Another notable example in recent years that was reportedly negligence from aerospace giant Boeing, was when in 2017, a drop test of the company’s new Starliner crew capsule went awry after the capsule was accidentally released. The employee injured was from the Near Space Corporation, the company that provides and supports balloon air dropped tests. When the employee noticed that the capsule had gotten loose, they attempted to leap away, but their ankle was caught by the trailer the capsule was loaded onto, leading to them shattering their ankle. Boeing was found at fault for providing a ladder unsuitable for the loads per Boeing’s own standards and failing to provide additional hold-downs to prevent this from happening.