The Amos-6 communications satellite tumbles into the wreckage of SpaceX’s latest launch attempt.
Early Thursday morning, minutes before a scheduled static fire, a concussion shredded the airframe of SpaceX’s latest Falcon 9 rocket. Originating near the upper-stage liquid oxygen tank, the explosion cascaded down, tearing apart the lower stage and engines, dowsing the launch pad first in orange fire and then in black smoke. The five-ton, $200 million communications satellite, still nestled in its fairing, waited half a beat before dropping into the wreckage with another epic fireball.
“Space is Hard.” That’s what industry experts say after disasters of this ilk. Rocket science is rocket science. When you put a giant can of supercooled liquid oxygen next to a giant can of supercooled rocket-grade kerosene—well, accidents happen.
Today’s @SpaceX incident—while not a NASA launch—reminds us that spaceflight is challenging. Our partners learn from each success & setback
— NASA (@NASA) September 1, 2016
There hasn’t been a rocket explosion like this since the days of Apollo.
It will be weeks or months before we know what caused the failure, or how it will fully affect SpaceX’s launch cadence. Speculation is rampant. Here are some important facts: The accident occurred prior to engine ignition. In the US, while sitting on the pad, there hasn’t been a rocket explosion like this since the days of Apollo. The most recent similar accident worldwide occurred in Brazil in 2003, when 21 people were killed after solid rocket motor detonated during launch preparations for the VLS rocket.
While payloads are often lost during rocket accidents, the loss of payload during a pre-launch test is rare. Only some companies conduct engine ignition tests prior to launch, and SpaceX is doubly unusual for conducting such tests with the payload already integrated onto the vehicle. Spacenews reported that, although United Launch Alliance (ULA) previously conducted a pre-launch test for the Atlas 5 rocket (called a “wet dress”, in which the rocket was fueled but the engines were not ignited), ULA ended the practice to reduce launch costs.
Perhaps most importantly: the loss of the Amos-6 satellite was a major setback for Facebook’s attempts to spread internet connectivity into Africa. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg released a tartly-worded statement: “I’m deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.” The Amos-6 satellite was to have been a key pillar of internet.org, Facebook’s global effort to expand access to the web.
The previous Falcon 9 failure, which occurred during Stage 1 accent, necessitated six months of downtime before SpaceX returned to flight. But, once they did, there seemed to be no stopping them. SpaceX’s return-to-flight launch also marked the first ever successful experimental orbital-class rocket landing at Cape Canaveral. Within months, SpaceX successfully landed on an autonomous drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, —for the first time.
But after a flurry of successful launches and landings (in all, six rockets have made it back to Earth, all in the last nine months), SpaceX now faces the ripple effects of investigatory downtime at a minimum, and in the worst case possible design changes to Falcon 9. Major milestones, such as the first Falcon Heavy flight originally scheduled for late this year, the first manned flight of Falcon 9 and Dragon V2 planned in 2017, and the firm’s ambitious unmanned Mars mission targeted for 2018—could each slip significantly. The remaining 2016 manifest is all-but-certain to slip: nine Falcon’s were scheduled to fly before the end of the year, six of those from Cape Canaveral. Launch Complex 40, where the recent accident occurred, will take time to repair—although SpaceX also leases Pad 39A, which might be used in the interim.
For now, diagnosing the failure is the first step to getting back to orbit. Said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell in a statement: “Our number one priority is to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers, as well as to take all the necessary steps to ensure the highest possible levels of safety for future crewed missions.”
Joe Mascaro is Program Manager for Impact Initiatives at Planet, a satellite Earth imaging corporation headquartered in San Francisco, CA. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not reflect the views of Planet.