Just two months ago, Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket broke through Boeing-Lockheed Martin’s hold on sensitive satellite launches. Congratulating the certification with the U.S. Air Force for national security space missions, Musk announced:
“We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well.”
However, less than a month later on June 28th, the Falcon 9 with SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft blew up in mid-air. It was supposed to be its 8th visit to the space station under the NASA contract delivering cargo.
After the explosion occurred, @elonmusk tweeted the following:
“Falcon 9 experienced a problem shortly before first stage shutdown. Will provide more info as soon as we review the data.”
According to the official announcement, a faulty metal strut was to be blamed for causing the explosion, as it was apparent to be made incorrectly with no visible way of inspection from the outside. This was a huge error as the strut snapped under stress of only 1/5 the force it was certified to withstand.
The fate of SpaceX?
Founded by Musk in 2002, SpaceX was his dream to enable people to inhabit other planets. Despite speculation of a failed start-up, the company has grown and now employ more than 4,000 people. It has even been supported by Google Inc. with the raise of $1 billion capital in January.
Prior to the boom of SpaceX, United Launch Alliance dominated military launches that involves the sector of space. A venture between Boeing and Lockheed, they charge the U.S. Air Force more than $160million for an Atlas v spacecraft to shuttle cargo or people from ground to the International Space Station. The military programme, called the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, has drained taxpayers millions a year as ULA has locked on the contracts a decade ago as two competitors joined forces. Musk proved that the Falcon 9 can launch government satellites for less than $100million.
With the loss of monopolisation, it forces ULA to lower pricing in order to compete with SpaceX, yet maintaining their consistent performance of high standards; though is seems SpaceX is at an advantage in terms of cost and technology.
However, after June 28th, the U.S. Air Force has been given a tough decision. Given that Falcon 9 blew up, what happens if it happens again but with expensive spy satellites that costs $1 billion each or even passengers instead? This may be a liability. Furthermore ULA currently uses a Russian-made RD-180 engine, which is prohibited in the U.S., forcing them to add expensive modifications to meet safety requirements. Therefore, all eyes are on the U.S. to see how they will decide to delegate their space launches to either companies.
For SpaceX’s sake, it is best if the company can learn from their errors. Although Musk declined to disclose which external supplier had provided the part for the strut, it is known they will now update to test each struts independently to certify rockets will not fail due to a foul strut. The process may be tedious but the total cost to a space mission in the future is expected to be negligible as any of these costs will be cheaper than replacing a new rocket.
The next launch scheduled for Falcon 9 is supposed to be on August 8th with the cargo of a satellite measuring ocean depths. Due to the failed ISS resupply mission, it has been postponed till later notice. The fundamental nature of rocketry is that every case should have a passing grade of 100%. Let’s hope SpaceX will live by those fundamentals.