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Analysis | How SpaceX’s spectacular pre-flight failure fueled a jump in hasty conclusions

An eyewitness sent SpaceNews this photo of smoke billowing over a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes Sept. 1 during fueling operation in preparation for a static-fire test. Credit: USLaunchReport.com video
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes Sept. 1 during fueling operation in preparation for a static-fire test.
Credit: USLaunchReport.com video

Every launch carries with it the risk of failure.

Nearly 60 years after Sputnik, a few percent of orbital launches each year end in failure. On August 31, for example, a Chinese Long March 4C rocket lifted off from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center carrying a remote sensing satellite. That satellite never made it to orbit because of an apparent, unseen failure that, almost a week later, has yet to be acknowledged by Chinese officials.

Individual failures, however, can remain surprising. That’s especially true when the failure takes place before the launch itself. Few people knew that a SpaceX Falcon 9 was on the pad at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, being prepared for a static fire test of the rocket’s nine first stage engines on the morning of Sep. 1. It’s a test largely unique to SpaceX, done a couple of days before launch, in this case of the Amos-6 communications satellite that was scheduled to launch in the early morning hours of September 3.

Few knew about that test until something went spectacularly, horribly wrong. At 9:07 a.m. EDT, about eight minutes before the static fire test was set to take place, an explosion ripped through the rocket’s upper stage, engulfing the lower stage in seconds. About ten seconds after that initial explosion, video showed the rocket’s payload fairing, with Amos-6 inside, tumbling to the ground, triggering another, smaller explosion as what was left of the rocket continued to burn.

 

 

That the failure would take place during preparations for a static fire test, well before the engines briefly ignited, let alone during the launch itself, made the explosion all the more surprising and shocking. Explosions at or shortly after launch are not uncommon: witness, for example, the October 2014 Antares launch failure seconds after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, or a Proton in 2013 that lifted off, flew sideways, and crashed back to Earth seconds later.

A catastrophic failure before launch, though, is very rare. The only other case in recent decades was in 2003, when a solid rocket motor on Brazil’s VLS small launch vehicle accidently ignited during preparations a few days before launch. The resulting explosion destroyed the vehicle and the pad and, tragically, killed 21 people.

Fortunately, no one was killed or injured in this explosion, as the launch pad was cleared of personnel in advance of the static fire test, as part of SpaceX’s normal pre-launch preparations. But the rocket and the satellite were clearly destroyed, and the pad infrastructure damaged.

What caused the failure remains unknown. In a statement late Sept. 2, just before a three-day holiday weekend, SpaceX said it was “in the early process of reviewing approximately 3000 channels of telemetry and video data covering a time period of just 35–55 milliseconds” around the time of the explosion (or “fast fire,” as SpaceX founder Elon Musk described it on Twitter.) An accident investigation team that included SpaceX, the FAA, NASA, and the Air Force were studying that data, the company said

“At this time, the data indicates the anomaly originated around the upper stage liquid oxygen tank,” SpaceX noted in the statement, a statement vague enough to leave open to interpretation whether it was a flaw with the tank itself, other vehicle components, or even ground equipment.

Arguably the company hurt the most by the accident is not SpaceX but the owner of Amos-6, Israeli satellite operator Spacecom.

That has not stopped a wave of amateur analysis of the failure, based primarily on a single video of the explosion that individuals are analyzing frame by frame with an intensity previously reserved for the Zapruder film. Not surprisingly, within hours there were explanations that were either off-the-wall (the explosion triggered by a passing bird) or worse (yes, aliens.)

Such speculation is natural in the absence of information, but not necessarily constructive. A key skill at times like this is to separate the implications of the pad accident—those likely to be true regardless of the specific technical cause of the failure—with speculation less firmly moored to the facts that are known.

One key implication of the failure is that many more companies than just SpaceX will be affected by the failure. Arguably the company hurt the most by the accident is not SpaceX but the owner of Amos-6, Israeli satellite operator Spacecom. While SpaceX will be able to return to flight in perhaps several months, depending on what’s needed to resolve the root cause of the failure, Spacecom lost a satellite that will take two to three years to rebuild.

Moreover, the loss of Amos-6 put the company’s plans to be acquired in doubt. On August 24, Spacecom announced that a Chinese conglomerate, Beijing Xinwei Technology Group, planned to acquire the company for $285 million. The catch: the deal was pending the successful launch and entry into service of Amos-6, which would replacing the aging Amos-2 satellite. With Amos-6 destroyed, that deal will be renegotiated, if it is remains alive at all.

The accident happened near the end of the week on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, where Spacecom shares are traded. The stock dropped nearly nine percent as word of the failure, and confirmation Amos-6 was destroyed, reached traders just before the exchange closed for the day. When the market opened again September 4, Spacecom’s stock plummeted by nearly 50 percent before rebounding slightly, closing out the day down nearly a third.

Spacecom reassured investors it would recoup the cost of the launch from SpaceX (either with a $50 million payment or a free launch) and the cost of Amos-6 itself from satellite manufacturer Israeli Aerospace Industries, for about $200 million. (Spacecom carried launch insurance, but since the failure took place before the launch itself, that insurance was not triggered; other insurance covered the satellite prior to launch.) But building a new satellite will take time, depriving Spacecom of revenue that Amos-6 would have generated, and risking the loss of more should Amos-2 fail in the interim.

Spacecom’s own customers are also affected by the failure, most famously social networking company Facebook. Working in cooperation with satellite operator Eutelsat, Facebook planned to lease the entire Ka-band capacity of Amos-6, covering much of sub-Saharan Africa, for its Internet.org effort to provide connectivity to underserved regions. Many news outlets called Amos-6 “Facebook’s satellite”, which is inaccurate: Facebook was simply leasing capacity on it, along with other customers, just as many other companies lease transponders on commercial communications satellites. Thus, the financial impact to Facebook is minimal, although Eutelsat said it stands to lose up to 50 million euros through 2019 because of the loss of Amos-6.

Other SpaceX launch customers will also feel ripple effects of the delays caused by the accident investigation and return-to-flight effort. Next up for SpaceX had been Iridium, who planned to launch the first ten satellites of its next-generation satellite system, called Iridium Next, on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in the second half of September. Iridium is counting on those satellites, and 60 more to follow in six subsequent Falcon 9 launches previously planned through the end of 2017, to replace its aging fleet before additional satellite failures create gaps in service.

Several other companies and organizations had also expected to fly on Falcon 9 missions before the end of 2016, including satellite operators SES, EchoStar, and South Korea’s KT Corp., as well as Taiwan’s National Space Program Office. Just two days before the accident, SES announced it planned to launch its SES-10 satellite on a Falcon 9 in October using the same first stage that launched a NASA cargo mission in April—the first time a Falcon 9 first stage would be reused.

Another customer who had hoped to fly on a Falcon 9 this year was NASA, which had another Dragon cargo mission to the ISS scheduled for November. “The situation at the Cape is being evaluated, and it’s too early to know whether the incident will affect the schedule for upcoming NASA-related SpaceX launches to the International Space Station,” NASA said in a September 1 statement.

“If there are SpaceX mission delays, other cargo spacecraft will be able to meet the station’s cargo needs, and supplies and research investigations are at good levels,” the agency added. But even before the failure, the schedule of cargo missions to the ISS was fluid: launches of a Cygnus cargo spacecraft (on the first flight of the Antares since its 2014 failure) scheduled for late August and a Japanese HTV cargo spacecraft, scheduled for early October, had been delayed in part because of launch vehicle or spacecraft reasons. The Cygnus launch is currently scheduled for this month, but NASA has not announced a firm launch date.

SpaceX “noted the lack of margin remaining to accommodate any additional unexpected issues that may arise,” a NASA commercial crew report issued the day of the accident stated.

The failure may also delay SpaceX’s commercial crew work. Prior to the failure, the company had planned to carry out a test flight of the crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft—alternatively called Crew Dragon or Dragon v2—in May of 2017, without a crew. A test flight with two NASA astronauts would follow in August of that year. If those were successful, SpaceX could have been ready to start flying crews to and from the station as soon as late 2017.

Even before the accident, though, there were concerns about schedules. The same day as the pad explosion, NASA’s Office of Inspector General issued a report about the commercial crew program, raising questions about the plans of both SpaceX and Boeing, the other company with a NASA commercial crew contract.

“The Commercial Crew Program continues to face multiple challenges that will likely delay the first routine flight carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS until late 2018,” the report stated. In the case of SpaceX, those challenges included delays caused “from a change in capsule design to enable a water-based rather than ground-based landing and related concerns about the capsule taking on excessive water.”

The report mentioned the prior Falcon 9 launch failure, in June 2015. “Although SpaceX officials told us that the mishap has not delayed its crew development efforts because it had built sufficient margin into the schedule, they also noted the lack of margin remaining to accommodate any additional unexpected issues that may arise,” said the report. The pad explosion certainly qualifies as an “unexpected issue.”

There are also potential implications for SpaceX’s efforts to win more business from the Air Force. Earlier this year, SpaceX won the first head-to-head competition for an EELV-class launch, of a GPS satellite, but by default: United Launch Alliance, who for many years was the only company certified for such missions, declined to bid for several reasons. ULA was expected to bid against SpaceX in upcoming launch competitions, where its record of successful launches may now carry greater weight.

The Air Force, for now, is standing behind SpaceX. “The US Air Force will continue working with SpaceX to ensure confidence in the safe and reliable launch of critical national security space satellites,” Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the head of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a statement after the accident, adding that the Air Force would not speculate on the cause of the incident.

And, of course, there are the implications for SpaceX. Regardless of the cause of the accident and the steps needed to resolve the problem, the company is faced with potentially major repairs to the pad at SLC-40. “The pad clearly incurred damage, but the scope has yet to be fully determined. We will share more data as it becomes available,” SpaceX said in a September 2 statement.

For comparison, the pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport used by the Antares suffered significant damage in the October 2014 failure, when the Antares crashed to the ground next to the pad seconds after liftoff. It took nearly a year and $15 million split among Orbital ATK, NASA, and the state of Virginia, to complete repairs to the pad.

SpaceX, perhaps anticipating a long repair period for SLC-40, noted in its September 2 statement that two other launch pads are, or will soon be, available for the Falcon 9. One is at Vandenberg, and limited to use for polar orbit or other high-inclination missions, like the Iridium spacecraft. The other is Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, which SpaceX said should be operational in November. While intended for launches of the Falcon Heavy, and commercial crew Falcon 9 missions, it can also be used for other Falcon 9 launches.

LC-39A is likely to be operational before SpaceX is ready to start launching again. How long the vehicle is out of service will depend on exactly what went wrong, and how long it will take to fix. After last June’s Falcon 9 launch failure, SpaceX’s Elon Musk announced the cause of the failure in July and, at that time, said launches could resume as soon as September. In fact, they did not do so until December, although that schedule was complicated by the introduction of an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 on that return-to-flight mission (which also featured the first successful first stage landing.)

And what did go wrong? Unless there was a recent, unannounced change in the design of the upper stage, it appears unlikely that this was a fundamental design flaw, given the vehicle’s track record: this would have been the ninth Falcon 9 launch of the year, and 29th overall. A manufacturing defect or other quality issue may be more likely, but no less disconcerting given that SpaceX, after last year’s Falcon 9 failure was blamed on a strut that broke at a fraction of its rated strength, vowed to improve its processes.

“What we wanted to do was to take advantage of the lessons that we learned from that particular failure and make sure we’re not seeing something like that anywhere throughout the vehicle,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said last August, when the company was still recovering from last year’s failure.

The accident also provided more fodder to the belief that commercial space is somehow less reliable than traditional government-led space. Some reactions bordered on schadenfreude.

Even though the investigation into the failure is just getting started, it has not stopped some from jumping to conclusions. Perhaps, some argued, the company is moving too fast. SpaceX had done eight launches so far this year prior to the failure and, counting Amos-6, had planned to do nine more by the end of the year, although some would have inevitably slipped to 2017. While that upcoming pace was fast, there’s no sign this particular launch was rushed: it had been more than a month and a half since the previous Falcon 9 launch, of a Dragon cargo mission in mid-July.

Others saw the failure as evidence that SpaceX should concentrate on its biggest customer—NASA—and redouble its efforts on commercial cargo and crew, at the expense of its Mars ambitions. But turning SpaceX into a conventional government contractor seems unlikely and, at last check, Musk was still scheduled to given a highly-anticipated talk about his humans-to-Mars architecture at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico in three weeks.

The accident also provided more fodder to the belief that commercial space is somehow less reliable than traditional government-led space, as people brought up last year’s failure, the 2014 Antares failure, and the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash just days after the Antares failure. Some reactions bordered on schadenfreude. “When boy billionaire Mark Zuckerberg reacted to the accident, his tone struck me a little shocked that his rocket could blow up,” wrote one aviation journalist, recounting the brief statement by the 32-year-old Facebook CEO about the loss of Amos-6. Of course, government missions fail, too, sometimes more spectacularly and tragically than commercial ones.

Less than a week after a surprising explosion on a launch pad, jumping to broad conclusions about the viability of a single company or an entire industry seems unwise.

Something clearly went terribly wrong, but until we know exactly what went wrong, and what it will take to recover from it, the big picture remains unclear.


This article originally appeared on The Space Review.

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Analysis | How SpaceX’s spectacular pre-flight failure fueled a jump in hasty conclusions

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