Correction: A Russian Progress is scheduled to launch to ISS on July 3rd
Many had hoped it would prove to be a day that changed space history forever. Instead, it offered a major launch failure for SpaceX and its Falcon 9 booster, and the sudden realization for NASA that it now faces a significant logistical challenge in keeping the International Space Station resupplied.
Two minutes and 19 seconds after an apparently flawless liftoff from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40 at 10:31 AM EDT, a sudden flare high in the blue Florida sky indicated something had gone badly awry.
For SpaceX, which cautions at every launch that spaceflight is hard and in the event of a problem, the company will learn from it and move on, it is finally time to put those words to the test.
The immediate future may be a difficult one on several fronts, beginning with its Commercial Crew aspirations. With Congress having seriously undercut the Administration’s budget request for the program, today’s loss will prove an irresistible temptation for some to push the agency towards a one vendor solution in favorite son Boeing and the ever reliable Atlas V. At the same time however, the loss of the CRS-7 mission could be taken to support NASA’s argument that two vendors are indeed necessary in order to prevent loss of access in the event of a stand down.
How ironic then, that even with two vendors under contract for the Commercial Resupply Program, both are now effectively grounded, as is the version of the Soyuz booster which launches Russia’s Progress spacecraft. For NASA and ISS, the challenge is real, but thanks to a great deal of advance planning it is one which can be overcome. There is little doubt that Russia will waste no time in getting its Progress flying ASAP. At the same time, the inherent flexibility built into the Commercial Resupply program allowed Orbital ATK to book a Cygnus flight aboard a United Launch Alliance for late this year, even as it was struggling with its own Antares failure in October.
On the commercial front, today’s failure occurs against the background of a market evenly split between SpaceX and Arianespace for comparable payloads, with significant scheduling pressure on both in a launch market which has backed away from the highly problematical Russian Proton marketed by ILS. It also comes immediately following a triumphant week for Arianespace which saw the company win the largest launch order in history, which was placed by OneWeb. Depending on what is ultimately determined to have caused the SpaceX launch failure, it also may also face the complicating factor of a planned increase in Merlin 1D engine power from the current 85% to a full 100%. Although primarily intended to support first stage recovery efforts, the increase is also necessary to accommodate some payloads which push the Falcon 9’s capacity to the stated limit.
Finally, there is the long running effort to gain permission to launch national security payloads. Having just earned certification after a grueling process, SpaceX now faces an even steeper climb. Certification notwithstanding, its success in winning support, particularly from some segments in Congress, were built on a record of 100% mission success. If nothing else, expect ULA to receive permission to import as many RD-180 engines for the Atlas V as the company says it requires.
One cannot help but reflect on the fact that on the Space Coast, the pre-launch activities at KSC included the opening ceremony for NASA’s “forever remembered” memorial at the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. Cast against that background and the tragic loss of Challenger, Columbia and their crews, the failure of an unmanned resupply rocket is just that, a problem which can and will be overcome and more importantly, learned from. For NASA, that hard-won knowledge revealed that the Space Shuttle system was a risky one which needed to be retired as soon as practically possible. For SpaceX, the lesson will likely prove to be a very different one, with the Falcon system emerging a better one for it.
For the moment however, it is worth remembering, and truly considering the words from President Reagan which NASA chose to emblazon the far well at the center of the display:
“The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
A press conference from Cape Canaveral is planned for no earlier than 12:30 PM EDT.
Much more to come.