Launch pad accidents have become rare in the modern rocket business, but the risk has never gone away. Yesterday SpaceX experienced just such an “anomaly”—company founder Elon Musk once drily referred to it as “rapid unscheduled disassembly”—when one of its Falcon 9 days exploded on Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, two days before it was due to launch an Israeli communications satellite to orbit. Fortunately there were no injuries, even though the blast rattled windows several miles away at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
The explosion occurred as SpaceX was preparing to test fire the Falcon’s engines, a planned procedure that requires the launch pad to be clear of personnel. As of Friday morning the cause of the accident hadn’t been identified, although Musk tweeted yesterday afternoon that the problem originated around the upper stage oxygen tank.
SpaceX was conducting a firing test with a live payload onboard (Facebook had planned to use the AMOS-6 satellite to provide Internet service in Africa), and now that practice may come up for review. According to one report, it was a time-saving measure, and no question, SpaceX is in a hurry these days. The company that calls itself “the world’s fastest growing launch services provider” already has launched eight Falcon 9s in 2016, with as many as nine more scheduled before the end of the year—a blistering pace by any measure. SpaceX says it has 70 launches on its manifest, representing over $10 billion in contracts.
How fast is too fast? That will certainly be the question as Musk and company try to push the rocket business toward greater economies, including an aggressive program to reuse rocket parts. We should all wish them luck, and hope this latest setback turns out to be an easily fixable problem. The future of space exploration depends on the ability of SpaceX—and others—to bring down the high cost of launch.