Veteran SpaceX technician spends months in a coma after rocket engine test accident

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Part of the Falcon 9 rocket with the SpaceX logo stands on a tall tripod surrounded by nearby buildings

The salvaged first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket was put on display at the SpaceX offices in Hawthorne, Calif., last year. The rocket used a model of the Raptor engine.

Rocket technicians working on the front lines of the Private Era space race are literally playing with fire. New details about how a SpaceX employee, who suffered serious injuries during a routine test, offer fresh insight into the costs for the blistering pace at which companies are working to put more rockets into the dark.

According to a Tuesday report from Semafor, a 10-year SpaceX veteran suffered severe head trauma and was in a months-long coma after a routine test of the SpaceX Raptor V2 rocket engine went off the rails earlier this year.

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The employee has been identified as Francisco Cabada, a father of three who lives in Los Angeles, according to former SpaceX intern Julia Crowley Farenga, who spoke to Business Insider. Other unnamed Semafor and Insider sources confirmed his name and serious injuries.

According to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) report opened in February, at around 12:45 a.m. PT on Jan. 18, an employee described as an “integration technician” was performing air pressure checks on the Raptor V2 engine. The employee used an automated program instead of the usual manual method as was the case before. The technician was then struck by the fuel controller cover after it was sheared off the controller module by the released pressure.

As the report notes, the technician suffered a fractured skull and head trauma, which led to his months-long coma. SpaceX was fined $18,475 in July and August for two safety violations, one labeled “serious” and with a severity rating of 10. OSHA uses “severity” to rate severity of a violation to determine fines, in which 10 is the highest possible score. The OSHA case remains open.

Crowley-Farenga told Insider the torn plate knocked Cabada to the ground, but the injuries were apparently more extensive than OSHA’s brief description seemed to indicate. Citing the California Department of Industrial Relations, Semafor noted that the injuries not only affected his head, but also his respiratory system and upper and lower extremities.

As Semafor reports, unnamed sources with knowledge of the accident claimed that Cabada was not supposed to stand so close to the valve when it reached maximum pressure. Still, the pressure built up faster than engineers had anticipated, giving the injured technician little time to move before the valve cover detached from its hinge and knocked him to the ground.

Lawyers for the Cabada family told Semafor that the technician was no longer in a coma but remained unable to communicate and still needed medical attention. A GoFundMe for Cabada, created by her sister-in-law, has reached nearly $52,500 at the time of writing. Semafor noted that an original photo of Cabada wearing a SpaceX hoodie was replaced with another image after the family entered into legal talks with the company. Many donations to the GoFundMe campaign come from current or past SpaceX employees.

SpaceX and its founder Elon Musk have made no public statement about the incident. Gizmodo reached out to contacts for Musk and SpaceX, but since the multi-billionaire companies have cut their PR services, we don’t expect to hear back.

As noted by Semafor, it is not uncommon for technician injuries and fatalities to go unnoticed. The outlet does not cite a source, but wrote that at least 24 spaceflight workers have been killed since 1980.

Most rocket and space-related deaths have been from major new events, like the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, but these high-profile events usually involve astronauts and pilots. One of the greatest disasters in spaceflight history, the Nedelin disaster in the Soviet Union in 1960, resulted in the deaths of perhaps hundreds of ground crew, although the exact death toll remains unknown.

Raptor engines are designed to power SpaceX’s next Starship mega-rocket, both for its first-stage booster and its upper-stage spacecraft. These engines are extremely complicated systems and we’ve seen what happens when things go wrong. In July, the area under Starship’s booster rocket unexpectedly exploded in a giant fireball when a mixture of methane and oxygen was accidentally ignited. Fortunately, no injuries were reported.

Testing of the six Raptor engines on the spacecraft appeared to be back up well in September, except for a large bushfire surrounding the SpaceX Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

After: NASA is ready to resume spacewalks after investigating a scary water leak.

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