Yesterday, during a pre-launch test for SpaceX’s AMOS-6 mission, an anomaly occurred that resulted in the Falcon 9 rocket exploding. According to SpaceX’s statement: “The anomaly originated around the upper stage oxygen tank and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle. Per standard operating procedure, all personnel were clear of the pad and there were no injuries.”
The question raised however is: with this now being the third explosion SpaceX has suffered, what happens next for the private space company?
SpaceX has probably experienced more success than failure overall. The successful ocean platform landing stands out, but the problem arises from the expense of the failures.
Extensive testing is required for the SpaceX rockets, particularly given their ultimate goal of reusability, and they are unfortunately not going to be given a cash prize every time they manage to get a test right. When one goes wrong, however, not only is it a lot of investment gone up in smoke, but the company’s stock and prospects of future investment are likely to take a blow.
Yet despite failures, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk seems indefatigable. His other companies, Tesla and SolarCity, are reported by the Wall Street Journal to be facing “financial crunches” and his personal fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, is said to have taken a hit of $779m following the rocket explosion.
The obvious fear that arises is that SpaceX, if continuing to suffer such failures as Thursday’s launch, could soon join the ranks of Tesla and SolarCity as incredibly ambitious companies on the brink of implosion.
Failures at such routines stages as test-firing are worrying for the future. They are not, however, unprecedented, nor are they guarantees of total failure.
Perhaps bizarrely for a business that relies on such huge amounts of money and has so much risk attached to failure, such problems actually contain vital information. While the ideal may be a perfect launch every time, there is an inherent unpredictability to space flight that means what you learn from failure is almost more important than a perfect launch.
It is important to consider that five of the world’s 86 rocket launches last year ended in failure, and SpaceX has in fact had 18 successful payload deliveries since 2012.
Professor Loizos Heracleous, a professor of strategy at Warwick Business School who has worked with NASA on its plan for the involvement of the private sector, observed that, “with space missions, even the most advanced simulations cannot replace learning by doing, given the multitude of variables involved and the importance of learning from experience.
“This explosion will not change the long term goals of SpaceX, which are to reduce the cost of space flight through the use of reusable rockets, and eventually to colonise Mars.”
Those long term goals may in fact not be as wholly disjointed by the anomaly as may be expected either as, taking to Twitter post-anomaly, Musk explained that what we actually saw was a very fast fire, not an explosion. More importantly, he believes that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule would have survived fine.
The Dragon is the company’s craft designed to carry people and contains an escape pod that could, in the event of launch failure, eject the crew in a manner “similar to an ejection seat for a fighter pilot”, according to Space X. It is a reassurance that the pod is believed to be able to survive an event such as that on Thursday but it will be more reassuring once the data from the fire has been incorporated.
Thursday’s anomaly was certainly costly and requires further investigation. The financial impact it may have on SpaceX moving forward is also a concern. Yet, if we are to take the company’s successes into the balance, this may prove valuable learning for a stellar future.