Last night, a routine test firing of a SpaceX rocket ended in a fiery explosion, destroying both the vehicle and its payload, a communications satellite that Facebook planned to use for beaming free internet down to Africa. As the smoke begins to clear, the future of SpaceX remains clouded in uncertainty. Image: YouTube / US Launch Report
The explosion took place at 11:07PM AEST yesterday on SpaceX's dedicated launchpad on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base. The Falcon 9 rocket was slated to take off on Saturday morning and deliver an Israeli-made Spacecom communications satellite. Unfortunately, that satellite had already been loaded for the test firing, and so it went up in smoke with the rest of the rocket.
Jay Shuman, a spokesperson for Spacecom, said that he couldn't yet comment on the loss of the specific payload, contracts or who would pay for the lost satellite. Then again, it's possible that neither SpaceX nor Spacecom will get hit with the bill. "In general, there is a very buoyant insurance industry surrounding the space industry," Shuman said to Gizmodo in an email.
One of the contracts that Spacecom had booked for its exploded communications satellite was with Facebook, who intended to use it as part of a push to deliver free internet in Africa. A Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo that, even with the loss of the satellite, its plan would continue — although which satellite it would use now remained unclear. "We are disappointed by the loss," said the spokesperson. "But remain committed to our mission of connecting people to the Internet around the world." Mark Zuckerberg issued a similar statement in a Facebook post.
In the end, the explosion will impact SpaceX's plans most destructively. The immediate question of what will happen to future SpaceX launches will be determined largely by the state of the launchpad after the fiery explosion.
Of course, Cape Canaveral is not the company's only launchpad — it also launches Falcon 9 rockets from a pad on the West Coast. It's not a simple matter of just using the other launchpad, however. Not only are there scheduling issues, but there is also the bigger question of why the rocket exploded. SpaceX plans to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on September 19 or 20 which seems frightfully soon. As for the next launch out of Cape Canaveral, one that aims to send of SpaceX's used Falcon 9 rockets back into space, there will almost surely be delays. In total, SpaceX has eight launches between now and the end of the year that don't yet have specific dates.
For now, it's unclear exactly how big of a blow Thursday's explosions will be to SpaceX's plans. The company hasn't yet responded to our questions on how much damage the explosion did. But the 45th Space Wing — the Air Force Base that maintains the Cape Canaveral station where this morning's explosion occurred — is currently monitoring the damage.
"The concentration this morning was making sure there was no threat to public safety, making sure everything was contained, and now they're going to assess the damage," Teri Spencer, a spokesperson with 45th Space Wing told Gizmodo. "Right now, it's just too early to tell."
Image: Twitter / Talia Landman
NASA is also looking into whether the explosion will impact any of its own launch plans. "NASA is assessing whether today's incident will affect any upcoming missions," Mike Curie, Kennedy Space Center's News Chief, told us, "but it is too early to know."
This isn't the first time that SpaceX has seen a rocket explode along with its cargo. Last year, its CRS-7 mission exploded moments after launch — taking out the shipment of cargo that was supposed to be delivered to the International Space Station. When that explosion occurred, SpaceX did a full investigation of the rocket, which eventually resulted in it changing a strut it used to build its Falcon 9 rocket.
Right now, SpaceX has simply chalked it up to an anomaly during a test engine firing. Elon Musk offered a few extra details in a tweet:
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
Until a full investigation reveals the precise source of the problem, however, the company may end up choosing to ground its Falcon 9 rockets altogether. That means that the future of SpaceX, for now, is quite uncertain. That doesn't mean it's going out of business. But things will never be the same.