Mission, interrupted

A waste in space

ROCKET scientists love their jargon, and it seems to be infectious. On September 1st, when a Falcon 9 rocket belonging to SpaceX, a private rocketry firm, blew up on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, in Florida, the emergency services announced that the mission had undergone a “catastrophic abort”. It happened while the rocket was being fuelled for a pre-launch engine test. No one was hurt, although windows were rattled several miles away. A communications satellite costing $200m that was mounted on the rocket, in preparation for the planned launch on September 3rd, was destroyed in an instant.

The blast is a setback for SpaceX, a firm founded by Elon Musk, an entrepreneur who also runs Tesla, an electric-car maker. With contracts to fly cargo and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA, as well as a thick book of orders from private satellite firms, it is the flag-bearer for a growing, buccaneering “new space” industry. The explosion was SpaceX’s second big failure in 15 months: on June 28th 2015, an uncrewed Falcon 9 rocket exploded halfway to the ISS.

The immediate consequence is financial. The wrecked satellite belonged to an Israeli firm named Spacecom, which is the object of a takeover deal by Xinwei Technology Group, a Chinese company. That deal had been contingent on the satellite making it successfully into orbit. Spacecom’s shares fell by 40% after the explosion. The satellite was insured, but Spacecom is nonetheless reported to be demanding compensation from SpaceX. The explosion also damaged the launch-pad, leaving it unusable, although SpaceX has access to two others. The firm pointed out that it still has contracts for around 70 launches.

Its reputation could also be damaged. The list of mishaps is lengthening. SpaceX has flown 29 Falcon 9 missions to date. Besides the two total failures, the fourth flight, in 2012, suffered an engine failure in mid-launch. The rocket was able to carry on to its rendezvous with the ISS, but its secondary payload—another satellite, owned by a firm called Orbcomm—could not be successfully deployed. Potential customers, attracted by the firm’s super-low launch costs—it charges far less than its main competitors—may now start wondering about its reliability.

History suggests that rockets do become more reliable over time: the European Ariane 5, for instance, suffered two complete failures and two partial ones in the early part of its life, but has now gone through 72 launches and 13 years without mishap. And SpaceX’s machines are blazing entirely new technological trails. The Falcon 9 is the first-ever reusable rocket. Its first stage is designed to fly back to land on an ocean-going barge, a fiendishly difficult process that the firm seems now to have mastered. Mr Musk hopes that will allow him to cut prices even further.

But the accident may delay the firm’s ambitious future plans. The post-mortem will tie up engineers at a time when the company already has a great deal on its plate. SpaceX had been due to launch nine other Falcon rockets before the end of the year. All those launches have now been postponed. In the early months of next year the firm is due to attempt the first launch of the Falcon Heavy, a new machine derived from the Falcon 9 that will be, by some distance, the most powerful rocket in the world today. That date could well slip. In addition to its contract with NASA to supply the ISS, SpaceX is soon due to start flying astronauts. The first mission is scheduled for some time in 2017.

In the aftermath of the explosion, NASA, one of SpaceX’s biggest customers, declared its support for the firm. SpaceX itself has said it intends to go back to flying rockets as soon as possible. Mr Musk is not in the rocket business only to make money. He has always been clear that the ultimate goal of SpaceX is to lower the cost of space flight to the point where it is financially feasible to establish a human colony on Mars, as an insurance policy against potentially catastrophic events on Earth. Exploding rockets hurt that aim, as well as profits, so the pressure for a successful launch next time will be intense.