A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on its Cape Canaveral launch pad during a test Thursday morning, destroying a commercial satellite that Facebook had planned to use to extend Internet access in Africa.
No one was injured, but the accident could ground SpaceX for weeks or months, depending on its cause and the extent of damage to Launch Complex 40.
It was the second time in just over a year that SpaceX has lost a Falcon 9 rocket, which is slated to launch NASA astronauts for the first time as soon as next year.
Several members of Congress on Thursday expressed support for the company led by tech visionary Elon Musk, and industry analysts said the event was unlikely to derail SpaceX or the emerging commercial space industry it represents over the long-term.
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“It’s a new era,” said Marco Caceres, an analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “The era where NASA is the only or the dominant player, we’re transitioning away from that. The Elon Musks, the Jeff Bezoses of the world, they’re here to stay, I think.”
Dick Rocket, CEO and founder of Cape Canaveral-based New Space Global, said the loss of the rocket and satellite was a “significant setback for SpaceX, but not a lasting one for the industry.”
“If anyone on this planet can recover from this, it’s Elon Musk,” he said.
SpaceX said it was investigating the accident.
Things went wrong at 9:07 a.m. as SpaceX fueled the 230-foot Falcon 9 during a practice countdown, part of preparations for a planned early Saturday launch of a communications satellite for Israeli company Spacecom.
The “static fire” test was intended to culminate in a brief firing of the booster’s nine Merlin main engines.
But before that happened, flames engulfed the rocket’s upper stage, the first in a series of explosions that shook buildings miles away and sent a plume of smoke billowing skyward.
Dramatic video provided by U.S. Launch Report showed fireballs erupt from the rocket and rain down on the pad, finally causing the nose cone holding the Amos-6 communications satellite to crash to the ground.
The satellite’s loss was taken personally by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who was in Africa promoting the Internet access that the spacecraft was to help provide through the company’s Internet.org initiative.
“I'm deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent,” he said in a Facebook post. “We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided.”
Facebook had leased capacity on the satellite in partnership with French satellite operator Eutelsat, which also planned to expand broadband Internet service in sub-Saharan Africa.
Apparently spared from damage was an $800 million NASA science mission sitting on another launch pad about a mile to the north. The OSIRIS-REx mission that aims to visit an asteroid and return a sample to Earth is scheduled to launch next Thursday on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
NASA, which has contracts with SpaceX to launch cargo and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station, was among those expressing confidence in the company Thursday.
“Today’s incident — while it was not a NASA launch — is a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but our partners learn from each success and setback,” the space agency said in a statement.
What if astronauts had been sitting atop the Falcon 9 on Thursday? SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule includes an abort system designed to jettison astronauts away from a failing rocket.
SpaceX appeared to have learned from a major setback in June 2015, when a Falcon 9 suffered its only in-flight failure minutes into a launch of ISS supplies from Cape Canaveral. The rocket has completed 27 successful flights since its debut in 2010.
The company said a faulty strut caused a rupture in the rocket’s upper stage, leading to its disintegration over the Atlantic Ocean.
After a six-month layoff, SpaceX returned an upgraded Falcon 9 to flight last December and had enjoyed a run of nine good launches. The eight so far in 2016 were the company’s most in any calendar year.
During that period, the company wowed observers by landing six rocket boosters. The landings raised optimism about the potential for reusable rockets, an innovation that both Musk and Jeff Bezos, the billionaire backer of space firm Blue Origin, believe is essential to making spaceflight more affordable.
Just this week, SpaceX announced its first deal to re-launch a used rocket — SpaceX calls it “flight proven” — later this year.
Now that launch and others inevitably face delays, at a time when SpaceX was striving to increase its flight rate following last year’s accident.
“This is going to set back what was already a very crowded launch manifest, and one that’s running more than a year behind schedule,” said Chris Quilty, president of Quilty Analytics in St. Petersburg. “If there was a glow about the company and its efforts, this latest setback is likely to diminish that sheen. Customers and insurers are going to have to pay closer scrutiny.”
How quickly SpaceX rebounds may depend on whether the rocket itself is implicated in the failure, requiring some redesign, or if it was triggered by launch pad equipment.
The pad’s condition also is unknown, though four lightning towers and a nearby hangar were believed to be intact.
Pad repairs were a serious issue for Orbital ATK when its Antares rocket suffered an engine failure and fell back to the ground, exploding seconds after a liftoff nearly two years ago from Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
The Antares could return to flight this month with a delivery of ISS cargo, relieving some of the pressure on SpacceX to resupply the station, if all goes well. In addition to extensive pad repairs, Orbital ATK took time to redesign the Antares with different engines.
At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, emergency personnel planned to work through the night Thursday to ensure any fires were out and to monitor air quality.
“Days like today are difficult for many reasons," said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing. "There was the potential for things to be a lot worse. However, due to our processes and procedures no one was injured as a result of this incident.”