Why people should not have doubts over SpaceX after today’s Falcon 9 explosion

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SpaceX experienced yet another major loss today after an explosion during fueling of a Falcon 9 rocket ahead of a test firing. On board were several satellites, including the Amos-6 communication satellite belonging to Israel which was supposed to take part in Facebook’s internet.org initiative by providing web coverage to sub-Saharan Africa. The explosion occurred at Launch Complex 40 at the Air Force station in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“SpaceX can confirm that in preparation for today’s standard pre-launch static fire test,” a statement from the company read, “there was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload. Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries.”

The continued reference to the explosion as an anomaly is not going to calm observers and potential customers who have already seen their own payloads delayed from being sent into space, in some cases by up to a year.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg aired his initial reactions in a post Thursday, saying, “I’m deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.”

The satellite belongs to Israeli company Spacecom and was manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries to replace the circa 2003 Amos-2. The new satellite reportedly cost $195 million, according to space.com. Facebook and satcomm company Eutelsat were to lease broadband from Spacecom for $95 million.

“Fortunately, we have developed other technologies like Aquila that will connect people as well. We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided.”

Expect the expected

This is the third explosion of a Falcon 9 this year, but should that give more people pause about SpaceX? At the moment, they are the undisputed industry leader, which has shielded them somewhat from criticism. But with the destruction of satellites from more high-profile clients – Facebook and Spacecom – the feasibility of many major projects might now be in doubt.

Herzliya-based SpacePharma‘s nanosatellite which contains on-board equipment for performing biological experiments in microgravity, was originally supposed to be sent up in the fourth quarter of 2015. But mechanical issues created major delays for SpacePharma and other clients.

During the Google Lunar X Prize annual team summit in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, SpacePharma Founder and CEO Yossi Yamin had said they expected their satellite to go up in six weeks. It should be presumed that it will be delayed again along with several other payloads.

Space omelettes will break space eggs

The Lunar X Prize itself might be impossible to win under the current rules. All teams are required to launch their payloads by December 31, 2017 and to land their probes by March 31, 2018. Only one team is building their own rocket, while others will sign up with outside contractors. Both the Israeli team SpaceIL and the Astrobotic-led effort will rely on some version of the Falcon 9.

But Astrobotic CEO John Thornton sounded unphased when we asked for his reaction.

“Space is a challenging industry and sometimes failure happens. We are very confident Spacex will bounce back from this. We remain focused on filling our manifest towards our first mission just as we did this week by adding another payload Team Puli, from Hungary,” Thornton told Geektime, referring to the recently announced merging of the Hungarian-led team with Astrobotic’s effort in the Lunar X Prize race.

While SpaceX will not be the launch provider (merely the rocket manufacturer) for those two efforts, doubts about the rocket’s reliability could push for even more testing and verification. It could also convince teams to build duplicate probes if they haven’t planned that already, which could be a costly endeavor in and of itself. Still, Space X still has only had two major losses and boasts a success rate of 93%, “right in the ballpark” of the industry average 95%, aerospace analyst Bill Ostrove (Forecast International) told the Los Angeles Times.

The reality is that SpaceX has a high public profile and is dealing with a nascent technology. On the whole, it’s showing a good record and half its accidents have occurred during attempts to land these rockets, an entirely new feat in space flight. That isn’t to say the Falcon 9 should continue to be refined as Elon Musk looks to send humans into the great beyond.

An attempt to land a Falcon 9 on an ocean barge saw it tip over and explode in June 2016, while another crashed in January. Another cargo mission saw a rocket explode in June 2015.

The side story here might be the future of Spacecom, which was under immense pressure following the failure of its Amos-5 satellite in space. There had been reports an acquisition of Spacecom by Beijing Xinwei for $285 million upon the successful launch of Amos-6.

But failure is inevitable, especially in a nascent industry like this one. Never before has a company tried to create such a service for bringing so much cargo for so many clients into space in such a short period of time, much less using reusable rockets. While it is probably a good idea to make sure all the insurance is organized, there is no industry better suited for the phrase, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.”

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