Two weeks ago Thursday, a SpaceX rocket burst into a fireball during a routine launchpad test and destroyed Facebook’s $200 million Amos-6 satellite.
No one was hurt, but SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said this accident is “the most difficult and complex failure” his company has ever seen.
Despite an ongoing internal investigation into the fireball, whose root cause remains elusive, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said on Tuesday the company will only be “down for about 3 months” before resuming the launch of Falcon 9 rocket missions.
“We’re anticipating getting back to flight … in November,” Shotwell said during a Sept. 13 satellite industry panel in Paris, which writer Irene Klotz reported at Reuters.
But some spaceflight experts are not convinced it’s possible or advisable for SpaceX to resume Falcon 9 launches so quickly. There are 70 planned; together they’re worth about $10 billion.
“It is hard to see how SpaceX could fly Falcon 9 by November, especially since they have [publicly] stated that they don’t have a root cause established,” Wayne Hale – an engineer, rocket accident investigator, and a former NASA space shuttle director – told Business Insider in an email.
“The last failure investigation I worked on took 3 months to come to a preliminary conclusion as to root cause and several more months for the company to put corrective action in place as well as eliminate other potential causes,” he said.
Tory Bruno, the chief executive of United Launch Alliance (a SpaceX competitor), has also previously told Reuters: “It typically takes nine to 12 months for people to return to flight. That’s what the history is.”
Hale noted it’s possible SpaceX could resume launching rockets in a few months “if the root cause were definitely determined very soon and corrective action is easy and swift,” he said, but “that is unlikely in my experience.”
“I wish them well, but being schedule driven is not an effective way to handle a failure investigation,” he said (emphasis ours).
Business Insider asked SpaceX representatives for clarification on Shotwell’s comment, including whether or not it would press forward before an investigation concludes.
“We expect to have identified and resolved the cause of the anomaly before launching. We will return to flight when we can safely and reliably do so, with approval of the [Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)],” they wrote in an email to Business Insider.
“We will launch from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in that timeframe, and Vandenberg [Air Force Base in California] will also be available for customers. Can’t confirm yet which we will launch from first.”
We shared Hale’s comments with SpaceX prior to publication, but the company did not address them.
The company has also not disclosed the amount of damage to Space Launch Complex 40 – the Cape Canaveral, Fla. launchpad where the Falcon 9 blew up on Sept. 1. (One source indicated to Business Insider that the damage would be considerable.)
A internal investigation
Previously, a spokesperson at SpaceX told Business Insider in an email that the aerospace company has rounded up “around 20 people” for a core investigation team.
“[M]ore than half are representatives from FAA, NASA, US Air Force and industry experts,” he said, adding that the “FAA has a formal role and vote on the investigation team.”
Leading the entire group is Hans Koenigsmann – SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance.
“[W]e believe he is the best person to do so,” the spokesperson said. “We are collaborating very closely with the participating agencies, sharing raw data and providing access to meetings.”
The representative declined to provide the company’s images and video of the incident.
The new team’s composition appears to be much different from the one that looked into SpaceX’s rocket launch failure on June 28, 2015. For that accident – in which a Falcon 9 rocket blew up in mid-flight – the company enlisted 11 of its employees and one FAA employee, and the group never made its findings public.
The US government allows closed-door rocket mishap investigations like this through a special federal law, though with some oversight by the FAA.
As Dan Leone wrote at SpaceNews in August 2015, following SpaceX’s previous failure, the company reportedly told him:
“[C]ompany-led investigations are standard operating procedure when it comes to launch ‘mishaps,’ which are legally distinct from launch ‘accidents’ under U.S. federal law. A mishap, SpaceX said in its legalese-laden communique, involves ‘no third-party loss, no flight line deviation, and no loss of life.'”
But not all is hunky-dory within the federal government about such a setup, as Samantha Masunaga and Melody Petersen reported for the Los Angeles Times:
“In June, NASA’s Office of Inspector General said that having SpaceX do its own investigation ‘raises questions about inherent conflicts of interest.’
The internal investigation could leave out contributing factors that ‘may not be fully addressed to prevent future failures,’ the watchdog warned.”
In a sworn June 2016 testimony about overseeing commercial space companies like SpaceX, George Nield – the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation – said the agency follows its mandate to keep red tape to a minimum for rocket-launching businesses:
“[W]hile the FAA has licensed or permitted over 280 launches, there have never been any fatalities, serious injuries, or significant property damage to members of the public. … [T]he National Space Policy directs federal agencies to, among other things, ‘minimize, as much as possible, the regulatory burden for commercial space activities and ensure that the regulatory environment for licensing space activities is timely and responsive.'”