Op-ed | Falcon 9 incident illuminates ripples in space community pond

A SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for the March 2017 launch of SES-9 from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40 launch pad. Credit: SpaceX

Last week’s unfortunate but spectacular on-pad pre-launch destruction of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher and its AMOS-6 commercial satellite payload, and the response over the coming weeks, offers an opportunity to illuminate philosophical differences between the commercial, civil, and national security communities in how they deal with such catastrophes.

SpaceX, by design, stands astride all of these space business areas, so the yet-to-be-determined effects of last week’s incident will send ripples, perhaps waves, through the entire space community.

Ubiquitous, seemingly insatiable, speculative anomaly resolution on social media notwithstanding, the real investigators will determine the cause of the incident in due time. SpaceX investigators will likely have help from the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial space launches, and NASA, which relies on Falcon 9 for cargo deliveries to the International Space Station, and the Air Force, which has certified Falcon 9 for national security missions.

A damaged strongback can be seen in this Sept. 7 photo of Cape Canaveral's SLC-40, the site of SpaceX's Sept. 1 pre-flight Falcon 9 failure. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff FoustA damaged strongback can be seen in this Sept. 7 photo of Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40, the site of SpaceX’s Sept. 1 pre-flight Falcon 9 failure. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

Since the incident happened on the ground and not in flight over the Atlantic or farther down range or in space, they should have full access to the shattered and scorched hardware as evidence. I suspect they will quickly find the cause, leading to an expeditious solution, which will then be promptly implemented, although physically repairing or rebuilding the launch pad may require more time than addressing the cause of the incident.

SpaceX has a business to run, as do the commercial customers in its backlog of missions. In business today, agility is key, so rapid recovery and moving on from this incident is paramount. For commercial businesses — such as the business of launching commercial satellites — insurance or other financial wherewithal can deal with unexpected asset-destroying events. Get the insurance payment. Fix the problem. Move on.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes Sept. 1 during fueling operation in preparation for a static-fire test. Credit: USLaunchReport.com videoA SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes Sept. 1 during fueling operation in preparation for a static-fire test.
Credit: USLaunchReport.com video

Prompt implementation of an expeditious solution need not be the same as a “quick fix” — temporary, failing to address the underlying problem and connoting shoddy engineering — as long as the necessary analysis has indeed been done. However, time is money.

For human spaceflight (and to a lesser extent, other civil space missions) and the national security community, while time is still money, it’s less about the money and time and more about ensuring thorough analysis that gets to root cause and an appropriate solution to protect taxpayer investment.

More importantly, there are intrinsic values that cannot be monetized, a fact that sometimes seems lost on budgeteers and accountants.

Ask yourself this: what is the value of an astronaut’s life?

What is the monetary value of the lost science and exploration capability a destroyed or inaccurately deployed robot payload was to provide?

How about the monetary value of the lost capability of, say, a missile warning satellite lost in a failed launch?

Real time 24/7/365 early warning of missile attack; missile defense support; the ability to characterize infrared events, phenomena and threats; and battlespace awareness to support force protection, strike planning and other missions — these are critical defense capabilities that cannot be fully monetized.

A similar case can be made for other national security mission areas serviced by satellites — position, navigation and timing; strategic and tactical communications; weather — that, until some other means is devised, must be launched on rockets, which are inherently risky.

The scientific value of the data from a spacecraft bound for Mars or elsewhere in the solar system, or of the principle investigator’s decade of work now lost or pushed to the next opportunity years away are, well…invaluable. While the loss of a civil weather forecasting satellite might be monetized to some extent in terms of the cost of additional damage done by the hurricane that is less precisely tracked or characterized, this would be imperfect. Anyway, the resulting value in human lives cannot be measured.

With Boeing and SpaceX now deep into development for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, vying to launch astronauts into orbit in the next few years, the stakes for launch vehicle reliability are even higher. SpaceX intends to use the Falcon 9 variant involved in last week’s incident to launch its Crew Dragon capsule, while Boeing intends to use the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5.

The taxpayer-funded cost of a lost crew capsule, satellite or robotic probe, launch vehicle and the engineering and launch service that provided them can all be accounted for in real dollars. The intrinsic value of the human crew or science or defense capability lost cannot be.

This explains why national security and civil space teams must demand rigorous analysis to get to the root cause of incidents like last week’s incident and rigorous analysis of the proposed solutions. While this need not necessarily require an inordinate amount of time or additional money to get right, it would be entirely appropriate if it does, frustrating as that may be to some.


James M. Knauf is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who served 26 years in a variety of space acquisition posts, including deputy director of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program at the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles and deputy director of space acquisition in Washington. He is chairman of the AIAA Space Transportation Technical Committee. The author has no financial relationships with any of the parties mentioned.