Falcon 9 Launch Failure

On September 1st, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle suffered a catastrophic anomaly on its launch pad (Space Launch Complex 40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The event occurred during preparation for a static firing test as part of a standard launch sequence. The actual liftoff was scheduled for September 3rd. The payload was an Israeli-owned, Amos-6, communications satellite.

No one was hurt, but the vehicle and payload were destroyed in the explosion. The Israeli-based operator, Spacecom, will likely be asking SpaceX to provide compensation for the loss of their satellite.

It has been reported that this will either be in the form of a $50-million payment or a free flight aboard a future Falcon 9. The lost satellite was intended to deliver phone, video and internet services to the Middle East, Europe and certain sub-Sahara locations in Africa.

Since the explosion did not involve a government payload or mission, SpaceX is in charge of the resulting failure investigation. Thus, federal investigators do not have primary jurisdiction over the review process. In such cases legal authority rests with launch vehicle manufacturer.

Nevertheless, a number of government experts and officials from the Air force, NASA and FAA are involved in the review team of approximately 20 people. Although there will be inputs from many sources, the only formal voting members are from SpaceX and FAA. And, the final report is subject to FAA approval, because future launch licenses are issued from this agency.

In spite of the incident, NASA has contracts with SpaceX to continue sending cargo capsules to ISS, and to start ferrying astronauts to the station later this decade. In fact, NASA has awarded over $3.1 billion to SpaceX for providing crew hardware and transportation services.

It is also true that the Air Force intends to use the Falcon 9 to launch future national security satellites. However, the impact of the explosion on SpaceX’s launch schedule is yet to be determined.

SpaceX currently has over 30 booked Falcon 9 flights, eight of which appear to be on the remaining 2016 schedule. Obviously, there could be significant delays for near-term scheduled launches.