Let’s face it: spaceflight is inherently risky, and getting into orbit is one of the most dangerous phases of any mission. Rockets are, by definition, one long, controlled explosion, with the energetic results of that explosion streaming out of the bottom-mounted engines and propelling the vehicle into space. It’s when that controlled explosion, or its fuel source, becomes uncontrolled that things get shaky.
Such was the case on Thursday morning, when SpaceX’s latest Falcon 9 blew up on the pad. Correction: according to an Elon Musk tweet, it was not an explosion but a “fast fire.” Whatever the technical explanation, controllers were in the process of fueling the upper stage prior to a “static-fire” test when the rocket vanished into a large fireball. This test is designed to fire the first stage engines briefly with the rocket firmly bolted to the pad to make sure that they are in perfect condition for a launch, which in this case had been scheduled for Saturday. But of course, that will not occur—the rocket vanished into a smoky, total loss.
So why might his be a good thing? SpaceX just lost a $62 million rocket (at retail pricing), and its customer, Spacecom, lost an $200 million satellite—both significant setbacks. SpaceX has contingency plans for launch accidents—they would not still be in business if they didn’t—and will find the problem and correct it for future launch attempts as they have done in the past. Hopefully Spacecom had insurance on their satellite, and will be able to field a replacement soon.
So when is a rocket explosion an okay thing?
While they are surely not the most efficient way to learn about potential design flaws in a rocket or procedural errors the launch process, such accidents are generally instructive. The Falcon 9 will soon be lofting astronauts to the International Space Station, and anything that can be learned about how to make the rocket safer and more reliable are best learned now while there is time to “man-rate” the booster (note that even if this had been a test for a crewed launch, the astronauts would not have been aboard the rocket at the time. Further, SpaceX claims that the Dragon capsule would have been safe had it been atop the rocket when it failed).
Also, such accidents contribute to the overall safety database for the industry. Any such mishap has a source, and these are usually found by dedicated and clever engineers who simply cannot stand it when things go wrong, and who will doggedly pursue the answers to exhaustion. It is a problem to be solved, and solved it must be. Also, with the explosion occurring on the ground, there are pieces to look at… the time-honored engineer’s tradition of sifting through bits of broken metal and other detritus to find the flaw in the process. Had the explosion—or fast fire—occurred in flight, it would be far harder to understand what went wrong.
Finally, in more general terms, like the Apollo 13 emergency, the loss of two space shuttles, various Soviet space accidents, and countless smaller spaceflight failures (that fortunately did not involve the loss of human life), such mishaps remind us, the general public, that spaceflight is a dangerous business. This is not a mandate to return our ships to the harbor and anchor them for fear of sinking—that’s not a productive course of action except for the insurance companies—but to always strive for the best and safest spaceflight systems possible, to test known and suspected problems as near to extinction as possible, and to admit that spaceflight will always be risky, expensive and time consuming. That’s just how it is, and how it will be for years to come.
According to a SpaceX spokesperson, the company has launched the Falcon 9 29 times with two failures, which puts it squarely in the acceptable range for a new rocket—a 93% success rate in an industry that claims a 95% success rate. With reference to NASA payloads, they added that the Falcon booster and Dragon capsule were developed under a unique "pay-for-performance" arrangement, in which, "SpaceX was required to demonstrate its technical capabilities prior to receiving any payment," which has required significant private investment. In the end, all customers will benefit from such competitive performance, despite infrequent setbacks such as Thursday's hardware loss.
Here’s to a safe and speedy path to flight recovery for SpaceX. They have a lot of flying to do.