SpaceX Still Investigating Launch Pad Anomaly and Assessing Launch Pad Damage

SpaceX Still Investigating Launch Pad Anomaly and Assessing Launch Pad Damage

In a statement issued late yesterday, SpaceX said that it was beginning the process of understanding the “anomaly” that occurred on Thursday that destroyed its Falcon 9 rocket and the Amos-6 communications satellite.  The incident occurred during what should have been a routine test two days before the satellite’s scheduled launch. The company also said that it was assessing the condition of the launch pad, which “clearly incurred damage.”

The anomaly occurred 8 minutes before the test was to begin while the rocket was being fueled, according to the statement.  This was a standard pre-launch static fire test to demonstrate the rocket’s readiness for launch.   SpaceX is one of the few — if not the only — company that places the satellite on the rocket prior to these tests instead of after they are completed.  Consequently, not only was the rocket destroyed, but the approximately $200 million Amos-6 communications satellite. Built by Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) for Israel’s Spacecom, the 39
transponder satellite’s primary customer was Facebook, which intended
to use it to provide Internet access to parts of Africa.

Chris Quilty of Quilty Analytics, an independent financial research and consulting company, said yesterday via Twitter (@quiltyanalytics) that the satellite was insured for $285 million, which will have to be paid under IAI’s marine cargo insurance policy rather than satellite launch insurance “because SpaceX had not yet triggered an intentional ignition.”  In his analysis of the business impacts of the incident for SpaceX, Spacecom, and Facebook, Quilty noted that Spacecom’s deal to be acquired by China’s Xinwei Technology Group was contingent on the successful launch of Amos-6 and thus could be disrupted.

Falcon 9 is SpaceX’s only launch vehicle available today.  In addition to launching commercial satellites like Amos-6, it launches Dragon spacecraft filled with cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA.  SpaceX is building a version of Dragon that can carry people, Crew Dragon, as part of NASA’s commercial crew program.  Test flights are scheduled for next year with operational flights beginning in 2017 or 2018.  Crew Dragon includes a pad abort system to propel the spacecraft away from the launch pad in the event of an on-pad incident like this.  In reply to a tweet hours after the incident, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk (@elonmusk) tweeted that Dragon would have been fine if it had been aboard on Thursday.

SpaceX said it is still assessing the amount of damage to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40).  SpaceX leases the pad from the Air Force, which is at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS).   SpaceX also leases a pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, adjacent to CCAFS, that once was used for Apollo and space shuttle launches, Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A). 

SLC-40 and LC-39A can accommodate both Falcon 9 and the larger Falcon Heavy rocket SpaceX is currently developing.  The first launch of Falcon Heavy is scheduled for this year and SpaceX said yesterday that LC-39A will be operational by November.  Most satellites are launched from the East Coast because they are destined for orbits accessible from there without overflying populated areas and benefit from launching in an easterly direction — the same direction as Earth’s rotation.   Some satellites must go into orbits around the poles, however, and those are launched from the West Coast to avoid populated areas.  SpaceX leases Space Launch Complex-4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA for its polar orbit launches and the company said that launch pad is in the “final stages of an operational upgrade.” SpaceX also is building its own launch site near Brownsville, TX, although it was not mentioned in yesterday’s statement.

The upshot is that SpaceX can continue Falcon 9 launches from other locations while SLC-40 is repaired, although its cadence clearly will be slowed.  Quilty lists 12 more launches SpaceX had planned for this year: nine Falcon 9s from SLC-40, one Falcon 9 from SLC-4E, and two launches of the Falcon Heavy from LC-39A.

SpaceX painted an optimistic picture, however.  Referring to LC-39A and SLC-4E, it said: “We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs.”


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