The pain may just be starting for SpaceX after a Falcon 9 rocket catastrophically exploded on a launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, during a routine test.
Although no one was hurt during the incident, Facebook’s $200 million Amos-6 satellite – bound to provide internet service to the developing world – was destroyed.
But what could hurt SpaceX the most is damage to the company’s go-to launchpad for Falcon 9 rockets, called Space Launch Complex 40, or SLC-40.
“SpaceX had six more launches from that pad scheduled between now and January,” John M. Logsdon, a space policy expert and historian at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told Business Insider. “They were going to launch one basically once a month, one every three and a half weeks.”
That ambitious schedule includes the launch of a recycled Falcon 9 rocket booster (and the SES-10 telecommunications satellite on top of it). Another rocket is supposed to launch 10 iridium mobile satellites simultaneously. Others still are slated to put into orbit dozens of tiny CubeSats, a TV satellite, and a load of cargo bound for the International Space Station.
Before SpaceX can get SLC-40 back into operation, however, it has to finish an accident investigation, clean up the site, and repair whatever damage was done.
And that means Elon Musk’s aerospace company is dealing with a serious wrench in its launch schedule.
- Max Whittaker/Getty Images
“This will definitely affect their business,” Logsdon said, noting it “will take a while” to assess the damage and repair it, or completely rebuild the pad. “They’re building a launchpad in Texas, but they’ve just started.”
Logsdon noted that SpaceX has another launchpad in Cape Canaveral that can lift off Falcon 9 rockets.
Called Launch Pad 39A, it’s the same structure that launched Apollo astronauts to the moon on Saturn V rockets – but is currently being retrofitted to send astronauts into space using the company’s Dragon spacecraft.
Launch Pad 39A is also scheduled for the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s giant Falcon Heavy rocket before the end of 2016.
And long-term, SpaceX plans to launch roughly 90 rockets a year by 2019, according to WOFL Fox 35.
SpaceX has one other Falcon 9-ready launch facility in Lompoc, California. However, it’s unclear at this time if the company could use Launch Pad 39A or the California facility to launch the missions affected by damage to SLC-40 in Florida.
Business Insider contacted representatives at SpaceX about damage to SLC-40 and its impact to the company’s launch schedule, and they told us by email in a statement (our emphasis added):
“The pad clearly incurred damage, but the scope has yet to be fully determined. We will share more data as it becomes available. SpaceX currently operates 3 launch pads – 2 in Florida and 1 in California at Vandenberg Air Force Base. SpaceX’s other launch sites were not affected by yesterday’s events. Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base is in the final stages of an operational upgrade and Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center remains on schedule to be operational in November. Both pads are capable of supporting Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs.”
NASA spokesperson Tabatha Thompson told Business Insider by email (our emphasis added):
“NASA remains confident in our commercial partners and in the goals of the Commercial Crew Program to take astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit. It is too early to know whether Thursday’s incident will impact their development schedules. Spacecraft and launch vehicles designed for the Commercial Crew Program must meet NASA’s stringent safety criteria before being certified to launch crews into space. Successfully meeting those requirements has always taken precedence over schedule.
“Both companies working with the Commercial Crew Program are required to carry numerous additional safeguards including a launch abort system that can be activated while the rocket is still on the launch pad. Those systems must be proven in flight tests before NASA will certify them for missions carrying astronauts. SpaceX tested its launch abort system from the pad successfully in May 2015. Both SpaceX and Boeing plan to further test launch abort systems in 2017.
“NASA and our partners remain committed to meeting the goals of the Commercial Crew Program.”
‘I saw dirty black smoke and flame’
- Business Insider
The SLC-40 explosion occurred at 9:07 a.m. on Thursday, September 1.
The blast was heard as far as 30 miles away and reportedly shattered windows nearby and knocked sliding doors off peoples’ homes, according to WLTV in Florida.
The cause of the mishap isn’t known at this time. However, Musk said the explosion originated somewhere on the rocket, not near the launchpad:
Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation. Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 1, 2016
This agrees with an eyewitness account of the explosion by an employee on site at Cape Canaveral who talked with Business Insider. (He asked to remain anonymous because of security concerns.)
“The explosion propagated from the center of the rocket, from what I saw,” he said, observing the blast from several miles away. “I looked out the window, and the rocket was sort of bent at 45 degrees and I saw dirty black smoke and flames.”
But Logsdon said a close-up video of the explosion (shown below), uploaded several hours later by USLaunchReport.com, “rather clearly shows the first flas[h] coming from the interface between the payload and the launch vehicle.”
The first detonation starts at about 1 minute and 11 seconds into the clip:
But the blast and launch schedule disruption it will cause may be the least of Musk’s concerns.
“You have to put this into the context of Mr. Musk’s plans in about three weeks to announce his long-term strategy and approach to colonizing Mars,” Logsdon said. “This is going to put a little tweak in the excitement surrounding that.”
Then again, says Logsdon, “we didn’t stop going to the Moon when we had early problems with Apollo.”
Lauren Friedman contributed to this post.