SpaceX welcomed September with a literal bang when its Falcon 9 rocket, during a full test of its engines with payload fully loaded, exploded spectacularly at the launch pad on September 1. While it may take months for SpaceX to sort through the pieces and figure out what went wrong, according to some armchair analysts the private rocket company may need more practice building their second stages.
When we send rockets to space, they are usually made with 2 or 3 detachable stages. Instead of hauling the entire thing up into space, the rocket detaches sections of itself to become more fuel efficient on its journey to orbit. Two stages comprise the Falcon 9: a highly publicized, reusable first stage and a less so upper stage. According to both Nick Stockton at Wired and YouTube’s resident Kerbonaut Scott Manley, the problem appears to be with the Falcon’s second stage. While the fantastic minds at SpaceX get to work over the next few months, we can only speculate what this explosion means for SpaceX, their dreams of human rated flight, and the US commercial space industry.
Firstly, this is an obviously huge dent in SpaceX’s master plan. In Scott Manley’s analysis, he discusses what would’ve happened had a manned Dragon capsule been aboard the rocket (which is an eventual goal of Elon Musk’s). Devestating for even a satellite mission, had the Falcon been crewed it would have been catestrophicly frightening. However both Manley and Musk are confident that the Dragon’s launch escape system would have been quick and powerful enough to shoot any astronauts to safety.
A more pressing concern, however, is if the problem is with the second stage. SpaceX had one other major explosion in July 2015 when a strut failed in Falcon’s upper stage sending a helium tank free to wreak havoc on the rocket. With a full launch manifest this year, SpaceX doesn’t have much time to solve the problem and get its rockets flying again before customers start turning elsewhere. Luckily the accident happened on the ground, which should expedite the investigation. But with customers lined up, launch contracts valued over $10 billion, and the impending test of the Falcon Heavy super heavy launch vehicle, Elon Musk’s SpaceX should figure it out soon before their dream of commercial manned spaceflight to the ISS and beyond go up in flames.