Sunday, September 18, 2016

The fallout from SpaceX rocket explosion continues

SpaceX still doesn't know what caused their Falcon 9 rocket to explode at Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC 40) on September 1. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk even turned to Twitter looking for help. He asked people to send him any video or pictures they might have of the incident, as noted in the story at Engadget, Elon Musk seeks public footage for SpaceX investigation.

(For background about the incident, read the blog post SpaceX accident bad news for space industry, including Canada.)

The media initially reported that no other launch pads were affected. In fact, if it wasn't for the quick work of emergency teams, the entire launch facility could have been shut down. That would have stopped the planned launch of NASA's OSIRIS-REx probe to the asteroid Bennu from nearby SLC 41.

Lieutenant Colonel Greg Lindsey of the 45th Mission Support Group at Cape Canaveral writes a fascinating account of how his group and others responded to the incident. If you only read one reference story in this article, read Emergency management: A behind the scenes look on the Eastern Range.

SpaceX will be grounded for an undetermined period. Other launch providers are looking to take advantage of SpaceX's downtime.

American company United Launch Alliance (ULA) said it has 1 or more slots open in 2017 on its Atlas V rocket. The company also announced a new program called RapidLaunch. ULA will build rockets without having customers for them, something they've never done before. This will get a new customer's payload into space in about 3 months, as opposed to the usual 2-3 years.

For more about ULA’s plans, read the story at SpaceNews, ULA says it could accommodate additional Atlas 5 launch next year.

Arianespace of Europe says a number of satellite operators have asked about open slots. Although the company said they only have 1 slot available for a large satellite launch by 2018, they're looking at ways of accommodating more customers.

Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel wants to work out a solution with other launch providers. That includes shifting a launch to a competitor's rocket, something that Arianespace did last year.

Mr. Israel also took a shot at SpaceX for the way the American company continually changes its rocket, saying they over-innovate and sometimes end up with an unstable system.

For more, read the story at Via Satellite, After SpaceX-Amos 6 loss, Arianespace sees demand surge.

Competition from ULA and Arianespace isn't all SpaceX has to worry about. An article at the Los Angeles Times, SpaceX faces a more crowded rocket launch market, even when it returns to flight, points out that other competitors, big and small, private and government-supported, are gearing up to grab a piece of the commercial launch market.

Mr. Israel isn't the only one who questions the way SpaceX is building its launch program. Unlike more conservative competitors, SpaceX tries to make big jumps. When they succeed, it's great. When they don't succeed....

The website Parabolic Arc takes a close look at SpaceX's unorthodox methodology in the article SpaceX: Giant leaps, deep troughs, but no plateaus.

Is SpaceX learning from their failures? Recent comments from the company's president, Gwynne Shotwell, might make a person wonder.

Shotwell is quoted in an article at Business Insider as saying the company anticipates flying again by November. Experienced space experts quoted in the article, SpaceX is 'unlikely' to start launching rockets again as quickly as it has said, doubt that it can be done unless the company can identify and fix the problem quickly. At this point, that seems unlikely.

It's a strange comment from someone who's been in the space business a while.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether SpaceX is pushing too hard. They're trying to recycle rockets. They're cutting out steps in the process to speed up launches. They're building a human-rated capsule to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. They want to send a Dragon capsule to land on Mars in the next couple of years.

Is it just too much for Elon Musk's team to handle?

More to come.