Sunday, September 4, 2016

SpaceX accident bad news for space industry, including Canada


Fact: Sometimes rockets blow up. Unusual fact: Rockets generally don't explode while they're fuelling up for a static test fire.

That's what happened to a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last Thursday at Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40. The company was preparing for a launch of AMOS-6, a satellite from Israeli company Spacecom, when the accident occurred.

Within seconds, a fireball consumed the rocket, as the following video shows. (5:39)

Here's a roundup of relevant stories about the incident and the effect it could have on the space industry, including upcoming Canadian launches.

SpaceX will pay a price for what happened. They lost a rocket and a payload, the launch pad was damaged (how much damage is unknown at this time), and their reputation for reliability has taken a hit. At this point they must be hoping that the investigation shows the problem was with the launch pad and not the rocket.

But SpaceX isn’t the only one taking a hit. Their commercial customers are, too.

The loss of AMOS-6 could scuttle Spacecom's recent deal to sell the company to Beijing Xinwei Technology Group. The deal was contingent on AMOS-6 going into service.

Spacecom updated their status in a conference call on Sunday, as reported in an article at Fortune.

Other SpaceX customers, like Iridium Satellite Communications of McLean, Virginia, and SES of Luxembourg, may need to put a hold on planned launches. Eutelsat Communications of Paris said in a press release that they’ll lose up to US$56 million in revenue due to the satellite’s loss.

Also potentially affected are SpaceX launches for NASA, including cargo runs to the International Space Station (ISS), and NASA’s commercial crew program. SpaceX was one of the 2 companies selected to take astronauts to the ISS in 2018.

For more details, read the story at SpaceNews, Falcon 9 explosion could have ripple effects across space industry.

That ripple effect could be trouble for Canada, too.

According to a story at the Globe and Mail, Explosion of SpaceX rocket rattles global space industry, the Canadian Space Agency is planning on launching the RADARSAT Constellation on a Falcon 9. Telesat of Ottawa also has 2 satellite launches planned with SpaceX.

This is the second significant loss for SpaceX in the past 15 months. In June 2015, a SpaceX rocket taking supplies to the International Space Station was lost.

In their desire to cut costs and speed up the launch process, SpaceX does things other launch companies don't do, according to an article at Space.com, Falcon 9 pad explosion highlights unique aspect of SpaceX launch campaigns. Critics say SpaceX is trying to do too much, too fast.

Eric Berger at Ars Technica echos that perspective with his analysis, Op-ed: We love you SpaceX, and we hope you reach Mars. But we need you to focus.

According to Berger, SpaceX gets up to 85% of its revenue from NASA, and that's where the company should focus its attention.

OldSpace companies like United Launch Alliance and Ariane have been criticized for not changing their ways fast enough. Maybe they're moving slower because they learned something from their own early problems.

And maybe newcomers to the launch industry should pay closer attention to the lessons the old hands learned the hard way.