While it’s still too early to know all the consequences of this morning’s SpaceX explosion, one thing is almost certain: the company’s future launches are likely to be delayed.
We don’t know what the root cause of the accident was, however, or how badly the rocket’s launch pad was damaged. Those are what will determine how long SpaceX is grounded from spaceflight — and whether the company’s business will suffer.
"So we need to get to the root cause before jumping to conclusions."
"It might be something that has nothing to do with the launch vehicle," Charles Miller, the president of NexGen Space LLC, a space consulting firm, tells The Verge. "It could be the ground-support equipment or something else. So we need to get to the root cause before jumping to conclusions."
Whatever happened to SpaceX’s rocket occurred at 9:07AM ET on Thursday. The Falcon 9 was on the pad at Launch Complex 40 — a rocket site in Cape Canaveral, Florida that the company leases from the US Air Force. The rocket was being prepared for a static fire test, in which the rocket’s engines are turned on while the vehicle is constrained, according to the company. These tests are done just before a launch to see if everything is working properly. Propellant was being loaded into the Falcon 9 for the test when an explosion occurred around the top section of the rocket.
"We deeply regret the loss of Amos-6," said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell in a statement. "Our number one priority is to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers, and we will carefully investigate and address this issue. We are grateful for the continued support that our customers have expressed to us today."
The best-case scenario for SpaceX is that the launch pad is to blame, because that suggests the rocket might have been working okay. But if the problem originated in the vehicle it means the company may have hardware or manufacturing problems with the Falcon 9. SpaceX experienced a major failure with one of its rockets last June, when a Falcon 9 disintegrated en route to the ISS. The company conducted an accident investigation for that incident, during which time its vehicles were grounded. A similar scenario could happen for this accident too. And it may also mean that the Falcon 9 will require design changes to prevent future explosions — which will likely mean longer delays for the company.
Another big question is how badly the launch pad was damaged
Another big question is how badly the launch pad was damaged. And right now, things don’t look good. Pictures from Launch Complex 40, where the explosion occurred, show that the pad’s strongback, a tower that helps support the rocket, is bent. If past launch pad accidents are any indication, it’ll probably take many months to fix the strongback and make all the necessary repairs to the area. It took a year to fully repair NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia when Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket exploded on the launch pad in 2014, according to Space.com.
SpaceX has other launch pads it could potentially use, but they all have different capabilities and may not be able to meet the needs of each mission. SpaceX has the option to launch out of a different site at Cape Canaveral. The company leases another site nearby called Launch Complex 39A. SpaceX has been modifying the launch pad at 39A to get it ready for the company’s Falcon Heavy: a huge, heavy-lift rocket that’s supposed to make its flight debut later this year. The pad at 39A will be able to support Falcon 9 launches, but it won't be ready until the end of the year, according to SpaceX.
SpaceX has yet another launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but the company can’t use that pad to get to the International Space Station. The Vandenberg site is mainly used for rockets that launch into polar orbit — a path that takes satellites over the Earth’s poles, according to SpaceX. The pad is in the wrong position to launch things to the ISS, though; the rocket would have to fly over land while it gains altitude, which could pose a threat to the general public. Because of the Florida pad’s position on the East Coast, Launch Complex 40 is the ideal place to launch rockets going to the space station and geostationary transfer orbit, a highly elliptical path around Earth, SpaceX says.
SpaceX is relying on the Cape Canaveral launch facility
So SpaceX is relying on the Cape Canaveral launch facility for the majority of its missions. The longer that pad is out of service, the more it’s likely to affect SpaceX’s business. The company is slated to conduct nine launches, including this weekend’s mission, through the end of the year. Those flights will likely experience delays now, and many of SpaceX’s customers — including Iridium and SES — saw their share prices drop after news of the explosion, according to Space News.
NASA will also want to know how SpaceX’s schedule is altered. SpaceX has a contract with the space agency to periodically launch cargo to the International Space Station. But with a damaged launch pad, SpaceX may struggle with maintaining its cargo resupply schedule. NASA said it's too early to know the effects on the Commercial Crew program.
And starting in late 2017, SpaceX is supposed to start launching NASA astronauts to the ISS as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Those first flights were already in danger of delays before the explosion. The Commercial Crew Program faces "multiple challenges that will likely delay the first routine flight carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS until late 2018," according to a recent report by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General.
Today’s events could exacerbate those Commercial Crew delays. NASA will want to ensure SpaceX’s rockets are safe enough to carry astronauts. "Every customer of SpaceX will want to have insight of what the root cause of the problem was," says Jim Muncy, founder of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting agency. "NASA is no different than any other customer." The space agency says it’s already working to determine the implications of the failure. "It’s too soon to assess longer-term impacts, but we’re assessing." Stephanie Schierholz, a communications officer for NASA, tells The Verge.
"It’s too soon to assess longer-term impacts, but we’re assessing."
SpaceX holds multiple important contracts with NASA. And the space agency continued these contracts with SpaceX when one of the company’s Falcon 9s exploded during a launch to the ISS last June. "I’m hoping the government will stand ready to try to help them recover," says Muncy.
There are still many questions surrounding today’s launch, and we may not get answers to them for a few days. "Until we get those answers, we don’t know what the implications are," says NexGen’s Miller. While we wait for answers, there's already a few consequences just from today's failure. Facebook was going to use the satellite that SpaceX was launching this weekend for its Internet.org initiative. The loss of the rocket and satellite have delayed Facebook's plans, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he was "deeply disappointed."
Update September 1st 7:35PM ET: The article was updated to include a statement from SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell and to clarify information about Launch Complex 39A.