Everyone is looking for an explanation as to why SpaceX's rocket broke up in the atmosphere Sunday. Elon Musk and SpaceX say that there was an "overpressure event" in the liquid oxygen tank. The internet's conspiracy theorists, however, have another explanation: The rocket was lasered out of the sky by SpaceX's fiercest rival, they say.
Let's be clear: There's no real evidence that United Launch Alliance (a Lockheed Martin-Boeing collaboration) or anyone else attacked SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. But that hasn't stopped the internet's sleuths from delving one level deeper into what exactly happened to the rocket.
"This rocket didn't explode, it was lasered by Lockheed Martin," commenter Gangstaz wrote on my post about SpaceX Monday. "You can even see the laser's flickering as it continuously blasts the rocket at 2:15-2:23 right before the explosion. It's the intense flicker dot that goes from one side and then appears on the other side on the upper top half. Free markets are great, as long as you don't have any competition."
For those of you playing Clue: Lockheed Martin, with the laser, in the atmosphere.
"I believe ULA directly caused today's Falcon 9 rocket failure. I believe they did this using Lockheed Martin's new anti-rocket laser."
Here's how the thinking goes: For years, ULA has enjoyed a monopoly on Air Force satellite launches, a business that nets the company billions of dollars. Earlier this month, SpaceX became the first company other than ULA to get certified by the Air Force to fly these missions, at a much lower price than ULA.
Meanwhile, SpaceX has repeatedly asked Congress to ban ULA from purchasing Russian-made rocket engines while cheaper American alternatives exist, a move that could threaten to cut into ULA's military launches until it develops an American-made rocket engine later this decade.
So, in the minds of these conspiracy theorists, ULA is pissed. And, lo-and-behold, Lockheed Martin demonstrated a new anti rocket laser weapon in 2013.
According to Lockheed Martin, the Area Defense Anti-Munitions system is capable of blasting "improvised rockets" at distances of up to 2 kilometers. Just to demonstrate how crazy this is, the Falcon 9 was at an altitude of 40.6 kilometers when it broke up.
As is custom with conspiracy theorists these days, those who believe there was a plot working against SpaceX have taken to drawing Microsoft Paint diagrams to illustrate their points. Here's one that popped up on my article analyzing the SpaceX crash Monday:
It's not just the one guy—this theory has multiple backers all across the internet. On the Conspiracy subreddit, a user named OSUfan88 made a post outlining both the "how" and the "why" of a ULA attack.
"ULA fought against this as hard as they could, paying some very powerful congressmen against [SpaceX's military certification]. ULA's only argument, and hope to continue their monopoly and win bids was to make a case that SpaceX was not safe enough. The only problem is that the Falcon 9 has the best track record yet," the user wrote. "I believe ULA directly caused today's Falcon 9 rocket failure. I believe they did this using Lockheed Martin's new anti-rocket laser."
OSUfan88 went on to post stabilized GIFs and a diagram of the incident, as well as a video of ULA's anti-rocket laser.
"If you watch the Falcon 9 rocket at the moments before it is destroyed, you will see smoke/vapor coming out of the 2nd stage. Compare this to the demonstration video of the laser. They look remarkably similar," the Redditor wrote. "ULA's only chance to maintain their monopoly (and possibly survive as a company) is for SpaceX to have rocket failures. ULA had both the motivation, and capability for today's failure. I find the evidence and circumstances behind this overwhelming."
Many people dismissed this conspiracy theory out of hand, while others thought that the rocket was destroyed, but using a different means. One commenter said that it may have been possible for a "sufficiently motivated attacker" to send a self-destruct radio signal to the Falcon 9.
It turns out that the United States Air Force did indeed send a self-destruct signal to the Falcon 9, but the Air Force said on Twitter that the signal was sent "following the breakup of the Falcon 9 vehicle … in accordance with Air Force policy and procedures to ensure public safety."
It's quite crazy to suggest that one of the largest companies in the United States purposefully destroyed a competitor's rocket during a much-needed flight to refuel the International Space Station. But one thing that the conspiracy theorists do have right is that SpaceX and ULA have been engaged in a pretty fierce competition that has at times turned ugly (as far as government contractor versus government contractor rivalries go).
Last year, former ULA CEO Michael Gass told Congress that his company makes "the only rockets that fully meet the unique and specialized needs of the national security community" and specifically outlined that it has "consistently delivered 100 percent mission success on over 68 launches."
SpaceX, meanwhile, has blasted ULA for being expensive and for using Russian rockets.
"Had SpaceX received the award for 36 [military launches], we would have saved the taxpayer $11.6 billion," Musk said at that hearing. Musk's second-in-command, Gwynne Shotwell, said earlier this year that she and her colleagues "don't understand" how ULA can make such an expensive rocket.
Earlier this year, current ULA CEO Tory Bruno was asked if he thought that relying on SpaceX for Air Force launches was risky. He responded, "I do."
SpaceX responded strongly: "The Air Force and the taxpayers deserve more from ULA and its latest CEO, whose remarks are purposely misleading, but not unexpected," a SpaceX spokesperson said in a statement. "In anticipation of having to face real competition for the first time, ULA is distorting the facts in an effort to hide its own shortcomings. This is merely the latest example that ULA is realizing that its long-held monopoly is coming to an end."
Until Sunday, SpaceX had the same track record of reliability—100 percent mission success—as ULA. It doesn't have that anymore. Will ULA capitalize publicly?
Marco Caceres, a space industry analyst at the Teal Group, doesn't think that'd be a wise move: "The competition needs to be very careful not to be too cocky. For all they know, the next launch they undertake could be a failure," he told me.
"Their competitors are quietly happy because it gives them an edge, but you don't want to kick someone when they're down," he added. "I don't think there will be a lot of finger pointing, I think there will be a lot of silence."
Conspiracy or not, Sunday's incident is bad for SpaceX, and potentially very good for ULA.