SpaceX Explosion Mars An Otherwise Solid 2016

Today a SpaceX rocket and payload exploded on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral.  The company was conducting a static fire test, which involves fueling the rocket and firing the engines, when the explosion occurred.  Nobody was on the pad at the time and no injuries were sustained due to the explosion.  The payload and rocket were destroyed, and an investigation is ongoing.  The mission was scheduled to launch on Saturday morning.

This will certainly result in delays for SpaceX and its customers as the company completes its investigation and addresses what problems are identified.  The aggressive schedule the company outlined for its Mars program, in my opinion, will certainly slip from the planned first uncrewed mission date of sometime in 2018.  I’d love to be proven wrong, but SpaceX has yet to be reckless.  Does it take risks, yes.  But I’d be surprised if it was able to ascertain and correct the problems from this explosion, resume normal operations, and then test its Falcon Heavy rocket and Red Dragon capsule to the point where the company is comfortable heading to Mars.  (And I’m sure the launch windows for Mars will influence any rescheduled missions.)

Additionally, SpaceX’s efforts to establish itself as a competitor in the military launch sector will certainly be affected by the explosion and associated delays.  Additional successful launches and landings between now and the next contract competitions will certainly help, but today’s events will certainly be brought up by SpaceX’s competitors as a knock against the company’s reliability.  For better or for worse, one pre-launch explosion can go a long way to overshadowing the six successful rocket landings and nine successful missions SpaceX has had since December.

The lost payload was the AMOS-6 communication satellite, owned by an Israeli company.  Facebook co-funded a lease of the satellite with Eutelsat, and intended to use it to support its efforts to expand Internet access in sub-Saharan Africa.  While the payload is likely insured, Facebook will still need to locate a replacement and/or shift emphasis to other means of expanding Internet (and by extension Facebook) access in that part of the world.

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