Sorting Through the Debris

It’s been a rough day or two for spaceflight: SpaceX’s incident on the pad, China’s Long March 4C failure, and an earthquake near Rocket Lab’s launch site (everything is fine there for Rocket Lab).

I won’t be talking about the SpaceX incident much until we hear the cause, but I figured I’d share a few initial thoughts heading into the weekend.

First, since this wasn’t a NASA mission, it won’t be a NASA investigation. It’ll be a SpaceX investigation—I’m sure in close contact with NASA—but that should move things along fairly quickly. It’s important to remember what Bill Gerstenmaier said of the CRS-7 investigation:

Gerstenmaier responded that he learned how quickly the private sector can react and find solutions.

SpaceX diagnosed the problem with its Falcon 9 rocket and was in a test facility to verify it within two days. That was “faster than I could have ever done.. …It would have been half a year” to get the contracts and test sequence in place. “I think what we really learned is that the private sector, if we give them the right incentives and we have the contracting structures set up, they can deliver the capabilities that we, at NASA, need in a very effective manner.”

Whatever the cause—Falcon 9, ground systems, or operations—something will need to be redesigned. If the problem is the Falcon 9, that’ll stop flights until a fix can be implemented. If it’s the ground systems, that will stop flights out of LC-40, and potentially Vandenberg, depending on which elements are common and which elements caused the problem. That might even change their plans for work at Pad 39A.

The best case scenario is that the problem was their operations and procedures. Redesigning operations and procedures isn’t easy by any means, but probably wouldn’t bring a delay as long as the other two cases.

Whichever was the cause, the biggest fallout from this incident will be political and operational. There is already a large crowd of people in the industry who think SpaceX is doing too many things too fast. Any additional ammunition for that argument can and will be used in any possible manner by those who believe that—politicians and competitors alike. I can’t wait to hear what kind of snark Arianespace throws SpaceX’s way.

Operationally, a substantial delay right now would be a major blow to SpaceX’s plans. This year was shaping up to be their best—smooth flow, great launch cadence, and a launch count well into the double digits. That would lead right into a pivotal 2017, with the first launch of Falcon Heavy, the first flight out of Pad 39A, and Dragon 2 flights.

The one worry I do have is how this will affect crew and propellant loading procedures. They had just gotten NASA comfortable with the idea of loading crew before propellant, but that may become an issue depending on the cause of this incident. Some have created comparisons of the explosion versus the pad abort test, but the operational decisions made in the future will not be based on technical aspects alone.

It’s a rough week over at SpaceX, but they’ve been through a lot in their short but impressive history. We’ll all be anxiously awaiting more information on the cause.