SpaceX has been prepping a Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40 to launch this Saturday. The payload is AMOS-6, a commercial commsat built by Israeli Aerospace Industries and operated by Eutelsat on behalf of Facebook, which intends to lease it for their internet.org low-cost Internet access initiative. As part of these preparations, the fully assembled and integrated launch vehicle, with payload, was rolled to the pad earlier this week to carry out final preflight tests. This morning, the tanks were loaded for a wet countdown rehearsal, to culminate in SpaceX’s now-traditional three-second hot fire test. But at T-3 minutes, something went disastrously wrong.
Witnesses around the Cape reported hearing what sounded like claps of thunder at 9:07 local time, and then smoke began pouring out from SLC-40. No one was injured; SpaceX was following normal protocol and had the pad entirely evacuated prior to any operations involving propellant. Firefighters at the air base immediately responded, and eventually got the fire under control. The $200 million satellite was a complete loss, and there appears to have been significant damage to the SLC-40 facilities. The is the first pad explosion at the Cape since the 1950s. (Apollo 1 was at the Cape, of course, but was not an explosion, and indeed did not even involve the launch vehicle.) It will take time for SpaceX to determine the cause of the accident; so far, Elon Musk has tweeted “Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation. Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon.” This leaves a huge number of possible suspects for the cause of the accident; it could even have been due to ground equipment, or the interaction of the vehicle with ground equipment, as the accident happened during LOX loading. SpaceX did recently add a new feature to the Falcon 9: superchilled LOX to allow more to be loaded, improving performance. That would likely be one of the first places they will look as they investigate this mishap.
The next question is what effect this may have on the space industry. Any mishap sends ripples through a risk-averse industry stuck operating in a fundamentally risky business. SpaceX has a very aggressive launch schedule; with this vehicle obviously grounded and no idea how long it will take to repair SLC-40, all of those launches will likely be delayed, probably by months at minimum. The upcoming manifest includes nine flights in 2016, including the first Falcon Heavy test flight. Among those are another Dragon resupply flight (although that was already slipping to the right for ISS logistical reasons) and a whole bunch of Iridium satellites. (The Iridium satellites will launch in a group of ten from Vandenberg AFB, so they at least won’t have to wait for SLC-40 to be repaired.) What’s more, it immediately impacts the acquisition of Spacecom, operator of most of the AMOS satellites, to Beijing Xinwei Technology Group. The sale was on hold pending the launch of AMOS-6. With AMOS-6 currently smoldering next to the remains of the Falcon 9, that may be a problem.
Well, here’s hoping the problem turns out to be relatively straightforward, that insurance covers the damages, and things can progress forwards.