SpaceX said Friday evening that its number one priority after Thursday’s accident at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station “is to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers, as well as to take all the necessary steps to ensure the highest possible levels of safety for future crewed missions with the Falcon 9.”
The company said it has begun a full investigation of Thursday morning’s explosion, which involved the loss of its Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 satellite payload during preparations for a static fire test. SpaceX’s “Accident Investigation Team,” along with oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration and assistance from NASA and the US Air Force, is in the “early” stages of reviewing 3,000 channels of telemetry and video data covering a brief time period of 35 to 55 milliseconds.
The statement from SpaceX provided no additional information about the cause of the accident. It only repeated that the incident occurred during fueling of the launch vehicle before a static fire test, rather than during the test itself, and that the “anomaly” originated around the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Whether the issue was related to a ground systems problem or occurred because of a defect with the rocket itself remains unclear.
SpaceX expressed confidence in its business prospects and its ability to manage Thursday’s accident. The company said it has about 70 missions on its launch manifest, worth more than $10 billion. “In the aftermath of yesterday’s events, we are grateful for the continued support and unwavering confidence that our commercial customers, as well as NASA and the United States Air Force, have placed in us,” the company stated. Less clear is how soon SpaceX will begin to fly out that manifest, now that it has sustained the second loss of a Falcon 9 rocket in the last 15 months. Before the accident this week, the company had been on pace to fly as many as two missions per month by the end of 2016.
If the incident was due to a launch pad issue and not the rocket itself, the company has options to begin flying within a couple of months. In its statement, SpaceX outlined alternatives to SLC-40, its main, but now damaged, launch pad. Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Los Angeles, is in the “final stages” of an operational upgrade, the company said, while Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center remains on schedule to be operational in November. “We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs,” said SpaceX.
It is not clear how long repairs to the SLC-40 launch pad will take, and SpaceX said the scope of the damage was also not entirely clear. After Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket exploded above its Wallops Island, Virginia launch pad in October 2014, repairs took more than a year. However, Orbital ATK was not under schedule pressure to complete the repairs. Orbital ATK needed additional time to develop a replacement rocket for the Antares vehicle.