One week ago today, a SpaceX Falcon 9 FT rocket exploded, destroying its payload while on the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Falcon was loading propellant and per safety protocol all personnel were at a safe distance. Nobody was endangered. Video suggests the initial explosion originated in the upper stage and the Hawthorne, California-based firm says it appears to have been near the LOX tank.
In the absence of further hard facts, rumors have swirled. Critics of private space ventures and those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo are celebrating and embracing timidity. They are pointing to this launch failure and those of other commercial firms (Orbital ATK, Virgin Galactic) as evidence that space entrepreneurs are “moving too fast.” Such pessimism is ironic coming from a launch industry that is supposed to be all about the future but that has, in fact, been stuck in the same operating mode for decades.
Much ado has been made over the destruction of the $200 million Amos-6 satellite but, as is routine, that payload was insured against this sort of event because, well, bad stuff happens to spacecraft. Rockets are perhaps the most complex machines ever developed. The engineering challenges are so staggeringly complex that setbacks are inevitable. In fact, industry experts are fond of saying “space is hard” and often use a 10 percent failure rate as a “rule of thumb.”
SpaceX has made 29 launch attempts of the Falcon 9 in three different iteratively approved configurations and it has delivered its primary payload to orbit in 27 of those missions. That 93 percent success rate is actually slightly better than the historical success rate for all U.S. rocket launches which runs about 91 percent. Pretty amazing for a little company that has been pushing the bounds of rocket technology every year.
The shocking thing about this incident isn’t the explosion. It’s that it didn’t happen sooner. The Falcon 9’s had an amazing record of 18 perfect flights before its first failure. That’s unusual. Its predecessor, the Falcon 1, failed in its first flight as did the United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 Heavy rocket. The Arianespace Ariane 5 experienced 4 failures in 87 flights. The Sea Launch Zenit 3SL has failed 4 out of 36. The Orbital Antares launch vehicle racked up just four successful flights before suffering a spectacular failure in 2014. Cooperative U.S. regulation and responsible American operators have always kept the uninvolved American public completely safe.
Despair is always the wrong response to a failure during exploration and it isn’t disciplined engineering. When the entire crew of Apollo was burned alive in a capsule test, President Johnson pushed our moon mission forward and engineers delivered. When Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, President Reagan proudly redoubled our commitment to space, we fixed the launch system and we built a great space station. When Columbia broke up on reentry we engineered work arounds and completed the Space Shuttle program with pride. Once again, America’s brightest engineers will collect the data, analyze the failure, improve the system and move us forward into the future.
Just a few years ago, many industry veterans were skeptical that any company could successfully utilize re-usable rockets. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have both suffered vehicle losses but they have also conclusively demonstrated the capabilities of reusable suborbital rockets and are now on the verge of taking average Americans into space! People are signing up for those trips in droves, because they share the dream and they will not shy away when they see a failure.
This year, SpaceX has routinely recovered its orbital boosters and is ready to demonstrate orbital reuse. This will completely disrupt the economics of space travel. Estimates vary, but those first stages are worth tens of millions and many analysts expect launch costs to drop by another 30 percent or more.
Let us not forget that there is also a human purpose to all this engineering and cost savings. Spaceflight tangibly improves the lives of ordinary people across the globe. Amos-6 would have supported a Facebook effort to expand Internet to millions of individuals and businesses in sub-Saharan Africa. Multiple providers are now working on satellite constellations that promise to connect everyone on Earth, crushing economic barriers and political censorship. The Global Positioning System now improves the efficiency of nearly every form of transportation on the planet, making it the single most effective technology for carbon emission reduction to date.
Consider for a moment that there are people alive today who were born before the Wright Brothers first took to the skies at Kitty Hawk. In their lifetimes, we’ve made air travel into the safest form of transportation in human history. We have put men on the Moon and sent probes to the furthest reaches of our solar system. Imagine the miracles you will experience in your lifetime, as long as we never turn back from our failures.
Greg Autry is an Assistant Professor with The Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies in the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. He has studied commercial spaceflight for more than 15 years and was the lead author on a report for the FAA Offices of Commercial Space Transportation entitled An Analysis of the Competitive Advantage of the United States of America in Commercial Human Orbital Spaceflight Markets. You can find him on Facebook.
This piece was submitted to SpaceNews on Greg Autry’s behalf by Keybridge Communications, a public relations firm.