While Space-X was conducting an engine test-fire in early September, an explosion obliterated one of their Falcon 9 rockets on the launchpad. The iconic commercial space organization and the private space industry as a whole are beginning to take stock of the long-term ramifications of the accident.
Since the incident, investigators from SpaceX, the FAA, the US Air Force, and experts from other government and private organizations have been working through all possible causes of the explosion which ripped through the second stage of the rocket. In addition, Elon Musk’s space company must reacquire a license from the Federal Aviation Administration before it can conduct a launch again.
“The investigation team has made significant progress on the fault tree,” said SpaceX. “Previously, we announced the investigation was focusing on a breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen [LOX] tank.”
Industrial sabotage had also been suspected as a potential cause of the failure; however, that theory was dismissed once SpaceX managed to reproduce the failure in a model fuel tank.
“The root cause of the breach has not yet been confirmed, but attention has continued to narrow to one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the LOX tank,” said SpaceX.
SpaceX and other industry officials, like Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Foundation, called for a calm response to the incident. They were quick to clarify that this would only be a small setback on the road to efficient private space travel.
“It’ll affect certain companies and stock, but it will certainly rebound if company is worth its salt,” Stallmer. “I’ve been doing this for a while, seen mishaps like this with other companies. The best remedy is not a kneejerk reaction in trying to figure out what it all means the day of.”
In spite of what many expected to be extensive delays, SpaceX has decided to resume launches on January 16th, aiming to launch the first batch of a large “constellation” of 72 next-gen satellites for a firm called Iridium Communications, based in Virginia.
“They’ve revolutionized the launch industry. Yes, [SpaceX] had a mishap,” said Iridium CFO Thomas J. Fitzpatrick, “[but] our confidence in them is not shaken. We’re sure they are going to figure out what happened and get back in business.”
Beyond the fact that Iridium and SpaceX both share a parent company, Motorola, a deep understanding is felt between the two firms: both are constantly pushing into new, unexplored technological territory.
However, that’s not to say Iridium doesn’t have a Plan B in case things continue to go poorly for SpaceX–Iridium is working with French, Italian, and Russian Space firms as well to be sure their satellites end up in space one way or another.
“We have a kind of hybrid insurance,” said Fitzpatrick. “We need 66 satellites to operate the constellation, and we are launching 72 and building 81. In the event of a launch failure we get a free ride on SpaceX and we have the nine spares.”
Unfortunately for SpaceX, not all of its contracts have the means to potentially replace exploded cargo. Shortly after the incident, British telecom company Inmarsat switched a planned 2017 launch from a Falcon Heavy rocket to a rocket built by Arianespace, a Europe based launch company.
While SpaceX still retains a contract to launch a future satellite with Inmarsat, contracts beginning to jump ship from SpaceX only serves to show the extremely risky, make-or-break nature of commercial spaceflight.