Corrosion: Stress-Corrosion Cracking
Piping and structural components used in space launch facilities such as NASA's Kennedy Space Center and the Air Force's Cape Canaveral Air Station face extreme operating conditions. Launch effluent and residue from solid rocket boosters react with moisture to form hydrochloric acid that settles on exposed surfaces as they are being subjected to severe mechanical loads imparted during lift-off. Failure analyses were performed on 304 stainless steel tubing that ruptured under such conditions, while carrying various gases, including nitrogen, oxygen, and breathing air. Hydrostatic testing indicated a burst strength of 13,500 psi for the intact sections of tubing. Scanning electron microscopy and metallographic examination revealed that the tubing failed due to corrosion pitting exacerbated by stress-corrosion cracking (SCC). The pitting originated on the outer surface of the tube and ranged from superficial to severe, with some pits extending through 75% of the tube's wall thickness. The SCC emanated from the pits and further reduced the service strength of the component until it could no longer sustain the operating pressure and final catastrophic fracture occurred. Corrosion-resistant coatings added after the investigation have proven effective in preventing subsequent such failures.