Did SpaceX’s Future Just Explode?
Elon Musk’s rocket company is all about making space cheaper by speeding up launches, with an eye on grabbing the military’s business next.
Facebook’s ambitious plan to bring internet to a huge swath of Sub-Saharan Africa suffered a setback on Thursday when a SpaceX rocket carrying the company’s first-ever satellite exploded on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Taking a bigger hit is SpaceX itself, whose Falcon 9 booster malfunctioned during a test-firing of its engines. Riding high on repeated recent successes of a self-landing, reusable version of the Falcon 9, Elon Musk’s rocket start-up has expanded its launch schedule, taking on more commercial and government customers as it aims to compete with leading U.S. launch-providers including Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The Thursday accident could compel SpaceX to delay its scheduled launches, potentially undermining its expansion plans.
The explosion occurred at 9:07 a.m., local time, as the 230-foot-tall, 600-ton Falcon 9—a two-stage rocket that can boost payloads weighing up to 25 tons to low orbit—was undergoing a static test fire, with controllers briefly starting the Falcon 9’s nine first-stage engines to make sure they worked.
Something went wrong and the rocket exploded, destroying the $200 million AMOS-6 communication satellite, which Facebook had commissioned from Israeli satellite-operator Space-Communication Ltd. David Turner told the Los Angeles Times he heard the explosion 40 miles away in Edgewater.
No one was hurt in the blast.
“All personnel were clear of the pad,” SpaceX tweeted.
Authorities responded swiftly. The U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, which oversees the Cape Canaveral launch pad, set up roadblocks in and around the facility and urged people to avoid the area.
The financial and material losses sting, particularly for Space-Communication Ltd.
“The loss of the satellite will have a substantial influence on the company,” the Israeli firm said.
By 1 p.m., Space X had a theory about what happened.
“The anomaly originated around the upper stage oxygen tank and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle,” SpaceX tweeted.
Definitive answers should come swiftly.
“Pad accidents are usually easier to diagnose than in-flight anomalies,” Brian Weeden, a space expert at the Secure World Foundation in Colorado, told The Daily Beast.
Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX is no stranger to high-profile accidents. The company, which Musk founded in 2002 after selling PayPal for $1.5 billion, wants to make rocket launches faster and cheaper, primarily by making its rockets reusable. That ambition comes with risk. In June 2015, a Falcon 9 carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded shortly after launch.
Several launch-and-land tests of the reusable Falcon 9 also ended in failure, damaging or destroying the rocket. SpaceX stuck its first rocket landing back in December and plans to begin using reusable rockets for routine launches later this year.
But that launch and eight others that SpaceX had booked for 2016 could get bumped to the right.
“They already had a very busy next six months, and any sort of delay—even a brief one—is going to make it that much harder to pull off,” Weeden said.
Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, meant to expand internet access across the developing world, could also suffer delays. AMOS-6 was the program’s, and Facebook’s, first satellite and the social-media company had high hopes for it. AMOS-6 was supposed to “connect millions of people,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said in announcing the satellite’s construction back in October.
“To connect people living in remote regions, traditional connectivity infrastructure is often difficult and inefficient, so we need to invent new technologies,” Zuckerberg continued. Facebook has not said whether it plans to build another copy of AMOS-6.
Investors and corporate satellite-users will surely be watching closely as SpaceX investigates the Thursday accident. So, too, will the U.S. government. SpaceX has been launching rockets for NASA since 2012 and snagged its first small military contract in April.
But Musk’s company has its eyes on a much bigger government prize: a contract for heavy military launches. At present, the Pentagon buys heavy rockets from just one company: United Launch Alliance, a consortium of defense-industry giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
SpaceX wants a piece of that roughly $5 billion-a-year market. It got its chance starting in 2015, when the Air Force certified SpaceX to eventually compete with United Launch Alliance for multi-year contracts.
World events seemed to improve SpaceX’s chances. After Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2014, U.S. lawmakers pressured the military stop buying Russian-made rocket engines. The powerful RD-180 engine powers most of United Launch Alliance’s rockets.
In 2014, the Air Force began exploring its options in the event Congress or the Pentagon decides to ban Russian engines from government launches. SpaceX has argued that its rockets can fill in for United Launch Alliance’s own, RD-180 powered rockets—and for cheaper.
“Each launch by ULA costs American taxpayers roughly $400 million—four times as much as a launch by SpaceX,” the company states on its website.
An official Air Force survey from 2015, which investigative reporter Joseph Trevithick obtained via the Freedom of Information Act and provided to The Daily Beast, revealed that the Air Force contacted SpaceX to determine whether the Falcon 9 could replace the United Launch Alliance’s rockets with their Russian engines.
The Boeing-Lockheed consortium’s current launch contract with the Pentagon ends in 2018, at which point SpaceX could compete for the next multi-year contract. For everyone except, perhaps, the Israelis, Thursday’s accident should be a distant memory by then.
“Barring any surprises in the investigation, it’s hard to see how this one incident might have a long-term impact on their plans,” Weeden said of SpaceX.