The explosion of a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket during ground tests last week has added urgency to a key question for NASA: When will U.S. spacecraft be ready once again to carry astronauts into orbit?
The accident involving billionaire Elon Musk’s company turned its roughly 15-story-tall Falcon 9 rocket into a fireball, destroyed a commercial satellite on board and damaged the launchpad at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
It is too early for investigators to conclude exactly what caused the accident or what it means for SpaceX, as the Southern California company is called, or its commercial customers, who already are fuming about launch delays.
But the incident has space experts questioning projections that U.S.-built boosters and capsules, including the Falcon 9, are likely to start ferrying U.S. crews to the international space station in less than two years.
If that forecast turns out to be too optimistic, top officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration might decide to reserve extra seats, costing more than $81 million each, on Russian space vehicles as a stopgap.
NASA has contracted for seats through 2018. But, with what industry officials say are up to three-year lead times required for reservations, NASA may have to act soon in case it appears U.S. alternatives won’t be ready until 2019.
Over the weekend, SpaceX said it began “the careful and deliberate process of understanding the causes and fixes” for the blast. “The pad clearly incurred damage, but the scope has yet to be fully determined,” the company said, adding it was confident that two alternate launchpads could fulfill its launch needs.
NASA expressed confidence that its commercial partners could transport its crews. But the agency said it was too soon to know whether spacecraft-development schedules would be affected. It added that commercial spacecraft must meet NASA’s safety requirements, such as an abort system that can be activated while still on the ground to propel crews out of danger.
“Accidents of that magnitude are not supposed to happen on the launchpad,” Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University in Washington, said on Monday. A 1967 explosion that killed three astronauts during a test on the launchpad “revealed deep-seated deficiencies that had to be overcome” before the U.S. could fly astronauts to the Moon, he said.
Before the latest accident, NASA inspector general Paul Martin had determined that both SpaceX and Boeing Co., the other contractor seeking to carry astronauts to the space station under fixed-price contracts, faced multiple challenges in meeting their schedules. He said in a report that manned missions to the orbiting laboratory were bound to slip to at least late 2018.
As recently as June, according to the report, SpaceX still hoped to have NASA certify the first unmanned demonstration of the company’s Dragon capsule sometime this month, and to blast off before the end of 2016. By the time of the accident, however, plans for that flight had slipped to the third quarter of 2017.
A SpaceX spokesman didn’t say when Falcon 9 launches might resume. He said the priority was “safely and reliably returning to flight.”
Pad repairs may take several months, and another Florida launch site won’t be ready before November.
One feature accident investigators are expected to scrutinize is the rocket’s use of a supercooled propellant to increase thrust, and whether a malfunction of the rocket itself or in the ground-based fueling system might have touched off the explosion.
The probe also is expected to look at SpaceX’s effort to save time and money by loading satellites and crews atop rockets before engines were test-fired at the pad. Established launch providers previously had shunned that practice as too risky.
from Department of Space Exploration