On September 2, SpaceX conducted a static fire test of a Falcon 9 rocket and payload that resulted in the catastrophic loss of both (translation – stuff blew up in a big way). Three weeks later the company has released an update of its investigation so far.
No cause of the accident has been identified as yet, but the company has so far determined that the failure came from a breach in the cryogenic helium storage system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank. The company also considers most of the surrounding area – launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral to be in reasonably good condition (but not unaffected by the explosion).
SpaceX has ruled out any connection with the 2015 accident where a Falcon 9 rocket exploded en route to the International Space Station. That accident was traced to the failure of a piece of hardware – a strut – within the second stage that led to a failure of the second stage liquid oxygen tank (also linked to the helium system). SpaceX declared following that accident that it would no longer use the kind of struts that failed.
What strikes me as optimistic is the declaration in the latest update that SpaceX could resume flight as early as November – 6-10 weeks away (though pad 40 would not be ready to support launches that quickly). After the June 2015 accident, SpaceX didn’t resume flight until December. Without knowing the cause of the breach in the helium system, I don’t quite understand where the optimism is coming from. Perhaps it’s an effort to assure SpaceX customers that it will be back in business sooner rather than later. But with November admittedly the company’s best case outcome, I think the company risks more of a hit with its customers by promising too much up front, rather than working from a more reasonable turnaround and surprising everyone by being ready sooner.
But I’m neither a rocket scientist or a rocket businessperson. I could well be wrong. Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, SpaceX’s next technical milestones aren’t likely to happen until 2017. These include the first launch of a previously-used Falcon 9 rocket and the first tests of the Falcon Heavy, the launcher that will carry Elon Musk’s Martian plans to the Red planet.