Investigation into rocket explosion just underway; SpaceX vows to return to flight in November


Image from video shows explosion at the launch site of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Sept. 1. (U.S. Launch Report via Reuters)

The investigation into the explosion of SpaceX’s rocket has only just begun, and last week Elon Musk tweeted that it  was “the most difficult and complex failure” the company has ever had. But SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said Tuesday that the company would return to flight by November, in what analysts said would be an exceedingly fast time frame.

“We’re anticipating getting back to flight, being down for about three months … in November, the November time frame,” she said at a conference in Paris.

The explosion occurred earlier this month as a Falcon 9 rocket was being fueled for an engine test fire. It damaged the launchpad that SpaceX uses at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. But SpaceX leases another one nearby at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that it has been rehabbing. SpaceX also has a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

SpaceX is leading the investigation into the cause of the blast with help from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Air Force and NASA.

The company lost another rocket last year, and it took the company six months to fly again. Typically, it takes six to nine months for companies to recover after a failure, depending on the particular circumstances, said Phil Smith, a senior space analyst at the Tauri Group, a consulting firm.

But returning to flight after just three months is “surprising because that’s actually very quick,” Smith said. Last week, the company was asking the public to turn over video or audio of the explosion that might help investigators determine what went wrong, he said.

The short timeline “would imply that they must know something about the nature of the incident, that maybe it isn’t the vehicle — that it was a procedural problem,” Smith said.

The explosion has also pushed back the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy, the more powerful rocket the company had planned to fly in November. That flight is now scheduled for early 2017, according to a person familiar with SpaceX’s plans. 

Meanwhile, United Launch Alliance, one of SpaceX’s competitors, announced Tuesday a service that would allow customers an expedited schedule to get their payloads into orbit.

“The priorities of all of our customers include ensuring their spacecraft launches on schedule, securing the soonest possible manifest date and completing the mission with 100 percent success,” Tory Bruno, ULA chief executive and president, said in a statement. “To address these priorities, we have been working on this offering for more than a year, which allows our customers to launch in as few as three months from placing their order.”