SpaceX has one new charred rocket to add to their inventory. And though fires may have been put out from the company’s rocket explosion last week, the reverberating impact this will have on the space industry is far from extinguished.
On Thursday, September 1, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was sitting peacefully on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida when it went and exploded for no immediately apparent reason. The incident occurred right before the rocket was to undergo a static fire test – a routine test to make sure the rocket is ready for an upcoming launch. But the test hadn’t actually started yet. The explosion occurred in the upper part of the rocket while it was being fueled. No injuries resulted but the blast destroyed the communications satellite AMOS-6 it would have carried into space.
SpaceX launched an investigation into the root cause of the accident with oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration. And every one of the company’s customers has a huge stake in hearing the answer. An explosion like this will likely have a lot of consequences for a space industry just beginning to open up to the private sector. Even now, the long term implications are still being flushed out. But let’s look at some of the fallout to come so far.
Probably the hardest hit of SpaceX’s partners is Israeli operator Space Communication Ltd whose AMOS-6 satellite was destroyed in the explosion. The satellite was going to be used to power free internet for unconnected parts of Africa in a project co-funded by Facebook.
Last month, Chinese company Beijing Xinwei Technology Group agreed to buy Spacecom for a reported $285 million but the deal was contingent on the successful launch of AMOS-6. That deal has now fallen through and members of Spacecom are negotiating new terms, according to the New York Times.
Spacecom’s shares also took a hit after the explosion, dropping 9 percent on Thursday. Then another 34 percent when trading resumed the next week. According to Reuters, they plan to seek compensation for the explosion either for $50 million or one free flight.
NASA also has a stake in finding out the cause of the accident. They have a string of contracts with SpaceX and this incident will potentially delay their schedule. The government agency had placed their hopes on SpaceX to begin sending astronauts to the International Space Station within the next 2 years. Having lost their own Space Shuttle program in 2011, it’s a service NASA currently pays Russia billions of dollars for today. But last week’s explosion will likely have an impact on their timeline. They could be buying seats on the Russian-owned rockets for some time to come.
SpaceX had planned to launch nine more rockets into space this year and those plans are probably going to get pushed out. Because the launch pad at Cape Canaveral was damaged, SpaceX will need to rely on its other two launch pads for future launches. One is in California and another will open soon in Cape Canaveral.
“We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs,” SpaceX said in a statement.
The explosion comes at a time when private companies are increasingly vying to enter the space market. According to one report by The Tauri Group, venture capital firms invested a combined $1.8 billion into private space startups last year. This is nearly double the amount invested in the industry in the previous 15 years combined. But a setback like this could have a ripple effect on the private industry as a whole and investments.
This explosion is the second time one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets has exploded in the last 15 months. In June 2015, a Falcon 9 broke apart during a resupply mission to the International Space Station. That accident was pinpointed to a faulty steel strut in the rocket’s upper stage and all scheduled launches were grounded until the investigation completed.