This morning around 9:07 am ET, SpaceX experienced a devastating explosion while completing a routine static test-fire in preparation for a launch on Saturday.
Luckily, no injuries were reported, but the payload, the Amos-6 satellite, was on the Falcon 9 at the time and was also destroyed. A nearly $200 million satellite, Amos-6 was set to be launched to geostationary orbit and provide internet to various locations in Africa as part of Facebook’s Internet.org initiative.
Elon Musk stated on Twitter that the explosion occurred near the upper-stage oxygen tank, although the cause of the explosion was still unknown.
Amos-6 would have been Facebook’s first satellite. Mark Zuckerberg, who’s currently in Africa, noted his disappointment in the explosion in a post on Facebook.
There are three stages of questioning that those in the space industry go through when a rocket explosion occurs. The first has to do with the damage caused during explosion and the root of the cause. Second, you think about potential schedule delays this explosion will cause and the other customers it will affect. Lastly, you must wonder about implications this explosion will have on the reliability of the launch provider.
In this case, the rocket and the payload were destroyed, obliterating hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment. On top of this, there will be significant damage to the launch pad infrastructure at Cape Canaveral. Luckily, there were no workers around the launchpad during the static-fire and no injuries have been reported.
Who foots the bill? Well, for rocket launches with pricey payloads, usually space insurance companies, mostly. As noted by CNBC, “There are only about 50 insured launches each year paying about $750 million in premiums to a handful of companies.”
Statistically speaking, about one in nine U.S. launches are expected to fail, so if you’re sending a payload worth over $100 million, it’s probably smart to get insurance. For SpaceX specifically, the failure rate is lower, with just two out of their 29 Falcon 9 launches failing (the first one occurred in June, 2015).
However, this rocket launch may be a unique case because the explosion occurred prior the engine igniting. According to Peter B. de Selding of SpaceNews, the launch insurance only kicked in after the engine ignited. However, it’s possible that the damages could be covered by another type of insurance known as marine cargo insurance.
But will this cover damage to the launch pad, the SpaceX vehicle and the satellite? We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out to learn more.
A rocket failure for any company is going to be a setback. The length of the setback will be dependent on the root of the cause. If it’s a technical error on SpaceX’s part, longer delays are to be expected. If it’s a human error on SpaceX’s side, shorter delays may occur, but their reputation as a reliable launch provider could be hurt.
Last June, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded just a few minutes after launch. It took half a year for SpaceX to finally return to flight. They returned in a big way, however; with that return-to-flight came their first ever rocket recovery.
This year, SpaceX planned to triple the number of launches compared to 2015, which means there are many customers anxious to hear how this explosion will affect their upcoming launch.
Among those customers is NASA. A cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station on a Falcon 9 was scheduled for November. Beyond SpaceX’s cargo contracts is their involvement as one of two companies selected (Boeing being the second) for NASA’s commercial crew program.
SpaceX had originally planned to provide their first crewed launch to the ISS in August of 2017. Because Boeing was experiencing their own delays in their commercial crew vehicle, SpaceX was expected to be the first private company to launch astronauts. With potential delays for SpaceX, it could still be anyone’s race.
Other big milestones for SpaceX, including their maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket and their first re-flight of a recovered rocket (both scheduled for later this year), are likely to be pushed back.
In the world of rocket launches, reliability is king. It won’t matter if you’re the cheapest provider if a customer can’t trust you with their $200 million payload.
SpaceX has made a business out of being one of the cheapest launch providers in the game. They’re considerably cheaper than, for example, United Launch Alliance, one of SpaceX’s direct competitors. While ULA doesn’t make their prices public, by some accounts customers can save 40 percent by choosing SpaceX over ULA.
But with ULA’s higher price tag comes reassurance that your payload will get where it needs to go. ULA has had a near-perfect launch record since 2006, with only two partial failures, while SpaceX has experienced two large failures in the past 15 months.
There is still much more to learn about today’s explosion to make any judgments regarding SpaceX’s reliability, but the big questions now are: what exactly caused the failure, who’s at fault and how quickly can it be fixed?