SpaceX Seeks To Return Falcon 9 to Service in November

The damaged SpaceX launch complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Thursday, after a Sept. 1 explosion destroyed a rocket and a satellite on the ground.
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The damaged SpaceX launch complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Thursday, after a Sept. 1 explosion destroyed a rocket and a satellite on the ground.


Photo:

Red Huber/Florida Today/Associated Press

LONG BEACH, Calif.—Space Exploration Technologies Corp. on Tuesday said it aims to resume Falcon 9 launches as early as November from an alternate pad, after a rocket explosion during ground tests two weeks ago caused what the Air Force calls moderate damage to its launch site.

Senior Air Force and NASA officials, who addressed the issue while attending a space conference here, didn’t elaborate on the specific damage to the pad and declined to predict when flights might start up again, emphasizing that SpaceX, as billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company is known, is heading up the investigation. Some industry officials have said the halt in Falcon 9 missions could stretch into early next year.

Hours earlier, however, at a satellite-industry conference in Paris, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, indicated the company was aiming to resume Falcon 9 flights in “the November time frame.”

But given the significant repairs required to launch complex 40 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station—along with the government signoffs that will be needed—the company has decided it will shift to a nearby NASA pad for its next East Coast launch.

Before the accident, which destroyed the booster and a commercial satellite that was on board, SpaceX already was in the process of modifying pad 39A at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kennedy Space Center to serve as a second Florida launch location. The work remains on track to be completed sometime in November, according to company and NASA officials.

SpaceX also is finishing up work to prepare a launchpad at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, which it also plans to use for Falcon 9 operations. Ms. Shotwell didn’t indicate whether the next launch would be from Florida or California.

But in a brief interview on the sidelines of the conference, NASA chief Charles Bolden said the Florida pad seemed most likely. He said Mr. Musk has indicated “the next launch vehicle will be shipped to” the Florida pad. “They were planning to do this anyway,” he said, because SpaceX needs both pads functioning in the future “to be able to maintain the [launch] rate that they planned in their business model.”

Since SpaceX uses the Falcon 9 to send cargo to the international space station, the final decision about the location of the next launch may depend, in part, on SpaceX balancing the agency’s need for supplies in orbit with concerns of various commercial customers jittery about getting their satellites launched.

The cause of the rocket explosion hasn’t been determined, though Mr. Musk in a Twitter
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post described the SpaceX-led probe as the “most difficult and complex failure” in the company’s 14-year history. Investigators are still trying to dissect whether the root cause of the accident was a problem with part of the rocket, the ground-based fueling system or a combination of factors.

During a media roundtable at the Long Beach conference,  Winston Beauchamp, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space, said “the damage looks like it’s moderate” and “definitely repairable.” But he added: “I don’t have a time estimate yet” on how long that effort will take.

In addition to setting back SpaceX’s hopes of stepping up its launch tempo to work through its growing backlog of delayed launches, the accident also has disrupted plans that targeted the initial flight of the company’s heavy-lift booster, called the Falcon Heavy, by the end of the year. Now, that demonstration flight, a long-awaited milestone that is already years late, has slipped to the first quarter of 2017, according to one person familiar with the details.

Lars Hoffman, SpaceX’s senior director of government sales, told the Long Beach conference that “it’s too early to tell” what longer-term impact the accident may have on the Falcon Heavy’s flight schedule. “We are continuing preparations” for introducing the beefed-up booster, including ramping up production and making other moves across the company, he said. And fallout from the accident “hasn’t slowed anything at this point,” Mr. Hoffman said.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com