Elon Musk’s bid to transform the business of space launch suffered a severe setback on Thursday when a SpaceX pilotless Falcon 9 rocket and a satellite were destroyed in an explosion on a launch pad in Florida.
The incident at Cape Canaveral marked the second time in little more than a year that SpaceX lost one of its rockets. The company’s equipment is far cheaper to operate than those of United Launch Alliance, its main rival for prestigious US government business.
The explosion followed the mid-flight break-up on June 28 last year of a cargo flight bound for the International Space Station. Mr Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, the electric car company, said after that incident that SpaceX had become “complacent” about safety and pledged to learn from the incident.
The Amos-6 satellite destroyed in the explosion was due to be used in Facebook’s effort to offer broadband internet connectivity in areas of Africa that are currently not well served. SES, operator of the satellite network that the Amos-6 was due to join,announced the deal with the social network in April. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the loss.
The rocket was not due to be launched before tomorrow but had been undergoing a test firing, according to SpaceX. Multiple social media users reported a loud explosion just after 9am local time and posted pictures of smoke billowing from the devastated launch pad.
SpaceX said that during preparations for a test firing there had been an “anomaly” on the launch pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and the Israeli Amos-6 satellite that it had been due to launch for a commercial customer.
“Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries,” the company added.
SpaceX was forced to halt launches for six months after the previous failure but made a triumphant return to flight on December 22, when it not only successfully launched a satellite but returned a booster to earth for the first time.
A similar delay after the latest mishap would call into question SpaceX’s plans to hold the inaugural launch later this year of its Falcon Heavy, a three-booster rocket that would allow the company to launch far heavier satellites.
The explosion comes at a time when SpaceX competitor ULA has been arguing that its relatively high costs are justified by its high reliability. While ULA charges the US government an average $164m per satellite launch, compared to the $100m or less that SpaceX charges, ULA has not suffered a complete mission failure in more than 100 launches since it was set up in 2006 as a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Loren Thompson, a consultant who has worked with both Boeing and Lockheed Martin, said the explosion was a “very serious blow” to SpaceX’s aspirations.
“SpaceX’s main competitor has never had a launch failure, which is going to be a fact that will be highlighted now that SpaceX has had two major mishaps in two years,” Mr Thompson said.