SpaceX rocket explodes: How big a setback?

August 24, 2014 – 04:43 pm

For nearly seven years and 20 launches, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the upstart teenager among United States rocket-makers, has enjoyed an unbroken string of successes.

Now, the company is having to deal with a launch failure the likes of which it hasn't seen since the early days of its first rocket offering, the Falcon 1.

A Falcon 9 rocket bearing more than 2 tons of cargo bound for the International Space Station exploded Sunday morning 139 seconds after launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The rocket was not manned.

Yet analysts suggest that while the mishap is a problem for SpaceX, it is an expected cost of pushing the envelope in space – in this case by trying to drive down the cost of launching payloads by moving toward a fully reusable rocket.

"It's definitely a setback, " says Bill Ostrove, a market analyst at Forecast International, an aerospace- and defense-industry consulting firm based in Newtown, Conn.

But the Falcon 9 also has recorded 18 successful launches, following two consecutive successes with the Falcon 1. Sunday's failure gives the rocket a 94 percent success rate through its first 19 launch attempts, he adds.

Eighteen successes in 19 launches is pretty decent, compared with the success rates of the launch industry as a whole, where rates within the mid- to upper 90-percent range are common, he says.

NASA officials have repeatedly cautioned that launching rockets is not a cake walk and that the agency's space-station resupply plans account for launch failures.

"We've always assumed we would lose a vehicle every so often, " noted Michael Suffredini, who heads NASA's space-station program, during a post-accident press briefing. "Getting to low-Earth orbit is extremely challenging."

Indeed, Sunday's loss of the Falcon 9 and its cargo-laden Dragon capsule marks the third space-station resupply failure since last fall, when Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares booster exploded last Oct. 28, just seconds after launch.

In April, Russia launched a Progress resupply capsule to the station. The capsule reached orbit. But something caused the capsule to begin rolling uncontrollably. After 10 days in orbit, the capsule with 2.5 tons of cargo reentered the atmosphere and burned up.

Orbital Sciences is getting set to resume resupply missions in December by putting its Cygnus cargo capsule on an Atlas rocket, provided by United Launch Alliance, a nine-year-old joint venture between aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and the Boeing Company.

While the space station has sufficient supplies to keep the crew comfortable and enough experiments to keep the crew busy, "having three [failures] this close together is not what we'd hoped for, " Mr. Suffredini said.

He and his team will be exploring options for tweaking the cargo lists for three upcoming resupply and crew-exchange missions, including Orbital Sciences' December mission, which he said might be moved up slightly.


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