Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What Do We Know About The Falcon 9 Explosion?

[Update, September 28, 2016: SpaceX has provided additional details on its website. The company's preliminary findings revolve around the possibility that there was a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen. While its cause is still unknown, the malfunction appears unrelated to the Falcon 9 mishap during the CRS-7 mission in June 2015. SpaceX expects to return to flight in November. In addition, Elon Musk announced this week that SpaceX is targeting early 2017 for the maiden flight of the company's Falcon Heavy rocket.]

Five days later, what do we know about the events surrounding an explosion during a pre-launch test that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket along with its satellite payload and damaged SpaceX's launch pad SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral? 

The short answer: Very little at this point.

SpaceX still refers to the event as an "anomaly" in updates posted to its website. As of this writing, the most recent update was published on September 2. Not that this is unusual less than a week after the loss of a rocket. It's safe to assume that it will take time to determine what happened. I don't think anyone at SpaceX - or elsewhere - was expecting this or had planned for a catastrophic outcome during a static fire test. Even Elon Musk isn't on twitter joking about RUDs (rapid unscheduled disassembly), like he did on occasions when experimental attempts to land Falcon 9 rockets on an ocean-going barge failed. The difference is those failures were semi-expected and necessary to refine SpaceX's path towards re-usability.

Below are the most commonly asked questions since the explosion, with up-to-date answers:

What is a static fire test?

Static fire tests are typically conducted a few days prior to the scheduled launch date as a "rehearsal run" for the actual launch and to assess a rocket's launch readiness. Such "rehearsals" are not unheard of in the space launch industry, even though other launch providers do not use them as often and typically only to test new rocket designs. SpaceX, on the other hand, conducts static fires prior to every launch. A few years ago, I would make a point of watching static fire tests, but they turned out to be so anti-climactic compared to actual launches that I soon stopped. Which goes to show that when we view a detail of the launch preparation process as "routine" or "unremarkable", reality has a way of dramatically, sometimes tragically, reminding as otherwise. After all, the rocket is partially or fully fueled during static fire tests. The explosion apparently occurred five minutes prior to the static fire sequence that briefly ignites the rocket, so it is still unclear which role the test itself played in the progression of events that led to the explosion.

Is SLC-40 SpaceX's only launch pad? 

No. While we do not yet have information on how badly SpaceX's launch pad at the Cape was damaged or how much it will cost to repair, the private space company has another pad on the space coast: SLC-39A, the former space shuttle launch pad. SpaceX has not yet launched from 39A, but plans to start doing so were already underway and could theoretically be accelerated. Moreover, SpaceX can and has launched from facilities at Vandenberg AFB north of Los Angeles. Even so, not all launch pads are the same. Some altitudes or orbits are harder or easier to reach from some locations than others, depending on rocket specifications and mission requirements. There is no word yet on whether scheduled launches from launch pads other than SLC-40 will proceed as planned, such as the maiden flight of SpaceX's largest rocket yet, the Falcon Heavy, from Vandenberg in November. In my opinion, it is not likely, unless the cause of last week's loss is discovered and mitigated very quickly.

Was the payload insured?

Yes. Insurance-related questions immediately began to swirl after the on-pad explosion, as the video clearly shows the payload fairing plummeting to Earth. Speculation centered around the question if the satellite was insured at all, since it was not destroyed as part of an actual launch. That question, at least, has been answered: the manufacturer of the AMOS-6 satellite, Israeli company spacecom, was insured for pre-launch activities and will receive $200 million in payouts. Nonetheless, the company is poised to ask SpaceX for additional compensation of up to $50 million or a free launch in the future. spacecom's shares dropped by almost one-third in the days since the explosion and its pending sale to a Chinese company is now in question. spacecom says it wants to continue to work with SpaceX and complete the launch contract with amended agreements. This means the company may well recover most of its losses, even as SpaceX faces significant costs, including loss of the rocket, launch pad facility and a possible decline in customer confidence.

Why was the payload integrated in the rocket during the static fire test?

Good question. The payload does not need to be atop the rocket to complete a static fire test successfully and SpaceX did not do this until about two years ago. Since then, the private launch provider has moved increasingly towards conducting static fire tests with the payload secured to the rocket. Conducting the test without it adds a day to the launch preparation time frame. Since static fire tests are conducted so close to the actual scheduled launch date, it's not surprising to see that SpaceX would try to streamline the process, especially considering the company's busy launch schedule.


Will this affect SpaceX's launch manifest?

Almost certainly. The private space company had assembled its most ambitious launch manifest yet for the remainder of 2016, with 9-10 launches scheduled through December. With that in mind, it makes sense SpaceX would move toward efficiency during pre-launch preparations. Still, it's also possible to frame such a move as an indication that SpaceX did not anticipate a failure during a static fire test, or did not perceive the risk as serious. It very well may not have been; we know nothing yet about what happened and why, or how likely it was to happen in the first place.


As jarring as it is to see a rocket explode when you least expect it, this is not a time to give up on SpaceX. I fully expect the company to rebound as strongly as it did following a launch failure in June 2015: By the end of that year, not only did SpaceX return to flight, it did so while simultaneously demonstrating the successful evolution of its landing and re-usability technology. 

"Of Course We Still Love you, SpaceX!" - Space geeks everywhere 

Update, September 7, 2016: An article published in The Atlantic confirms that Elon Musk plans to provide additional information this month about the Mars Colonization Project, an ambitious plan to colonize Mars by the mid-2020s. While many are understandably skeptical of this timeline, getting to Mars has always been SpaceX's goal. Ten years ago, Elon Musk got mocked for saying this out loud. Today, SpaceX is the only commercial or government launch provider in the world that can land its rockets on land and on water.