The meteoric rise of SpaceX, a space industry company with 18 successful launches, makes it easy to forget that rocket science is hard. Entrepreneur Elon Musk, seeking to revolutionize the U.S. space sector, founded SpaceX in 2002. The company became part of a wider strategy in which private companies could come in and help transform the industry in the United States, driving costs down through competition. Subsequently, private companies have become vital to resuming manned launches originating on U.S. soil.
But a string of failures during the development phase, now including the June 28 failure of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, serves as a reminder of the difficulties that persist for U.S. commercial space developers. Space exploration is expensive, and some level of failure is to be expected when building a new system, as SpaceX has done. Setbacks are normal for developing programs, and should curb expectations and hopes for a quick transformation of an entire industry.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket broke apart roughly two minutes after liftoff. The exact cause of the failure is undetermined, and a follow-up investigation to find the answer will likely take more than six months. The mission had two purposes: to resupply the International Space Station and to serve as SpaceX's third attempt to land a stage of the rocket on a barge post-launch — an important step in the development of a partially reusable rocket system. SpaceX has multiple launches scheduled over the next several months, but the next scheduled launch on Aug. 9 has already been postponed.
Washington and NASA are relying on the private space industry to help advance space exploration and related technology. In addition to substantially reducing the cost of launches, one of the primary immediate goals is resuming manned missions launched from U.S. soil. Currently, the United States depends on the Russian Federal Space Agency to put U.S. astronauts into space.
The failed mission is a blemish on SpaceX's stellar record. In 2010, SpaceX made history as the first private space company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and have it successfully return to earth. In 2012, it became the first private company to have a spacecraft dock with the International Space Station. SpaceX has also conducted six previous resupply missions. There were high hopes for the landing attempt as well, as the throttle valve problems from April's attempt had been addressed.
But SpaceX is not alone in this failure. In fact, this is the third resupply failure since October 2014; Russia and another private space company, Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK), were responsible for the previous two. But the explosion will put SpaceX's reliability into question at an inopportune time for the company, when the Senate Appropriations Committee approved cuts to NASA's commercial crew funding earlier this month.
The commercial sector needs competition to support U.S. space exploration and drive down costs. SpaceX, which was certified to launch national security space missions, broke the monopoly previously held by its main competitor, United Launch Alliance — a Boeing/Lockheed Martin collaboration. However, United Launch Alliance has launched 96 successful missions (its Atlas V rocket has had a 100 percent success rate), and both Boeing and Lockheed Martin have already established relationships with the military. Reliability issues will make it more difficult for SpaceX to compete for new contracts, even at lower costs.
However, United Launch Alliance has its own geopolitically driven problems, because the company requires the Russian-built RD-180 engine to power its Atlas V rockets. U.S. Sen. John McCain is leading the charge to halt these imports, saying that the SpaceX mishap "in no way diminishes the urgency" of halting imports of RD-180 rocket engines. The Senate Armed Services Committee version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 would limit the number of Russian RD-180 engines imported to nine. Such limitations would threaten the United Launch Alliance's ability to meet launch demands as it develops its next-generation Vulcan rocket, which is slated for its inaugural launch in 2019 and would not be certified for military launches until 2022. Even switching to domestic manufacture of the RD-180 would take several years. If SpaceX's reliability issues endure, the U.S. government could have no choice but to continue using Russian rockets for the short term.
Lingering questions will hamper SpaceX's competition with more proven options, such as the Atlas V or even the European rocket Ariane 5, for satellite launches. Reliability was a factor when NASA awarded two contracts to pursue manned launches through the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability program; Boeing received a $4.2 billion contract in September 2014, while SpaceX received a smaller contract of $2.6 billion for its Dragon Capsule. Both companies are looking to have launch vehicles certified in 2017. Though the competition between the two companies was close, documents associated with the decision that were initially leaked The Wall Street Journal indicate that SpaceX's ability to perform and meet the projected schedule was a concern. The June 28 failure could, consequently, jeopardize SpaceX's projected timeline, especially because future launches are postponed during the investigation.
The "final frontier" remains a geopolitically important one, particularly because of the need for satellite technology for communication, navigation and military purposes. Continued exploration will only heighten competition between nations as well as between the public and private sectors to develop the necessary technology and eventually secure territory. Though a setback, the SpaceX failure will not end the company. The United States will likely keep using commercial industry to help NASA explore space. During the last decade, SpaceX has positioned itself to be a key player in that game. The explosion on June 28 may slow down the company's meteoric rise, but it will not derail commercial space flight altogether.