Falcon 9 Launch Failure Scrambles Schedule

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

With the failure of the Falcon 9 on Sunday, SpaceX’s only launch vehicle will be grounded for an unknown number of months while engineers identify the cause of the crash and make necessary changes to ensure that failure won’t happen again.

The stand down will scramble SpaceX’s schedule for the rest of this year and into 2016. SpaceX had planned at least 9 launches carrying at least 28 payloads through the first quarter of next year. The manifest included the debut of the company’s 28-engine Falcon Heavy launch vehicle and an in-flight abort test using a modified Falcon 9 rocket by the end 2015.

The payloads include 26 communications satellites for commercial operators, the joint U.S.-European Jason 3 ocean topography satellite, and a Dragon test article for the in-flight abort test.

8/8/15Falcon 9Vandenberg Jason 3U.S.-European ocean topography satellite will deliver data to NASA, NOAA, EUMETSAT and CNES.
 August 2015Falcon 9Cape Canaveral
SES 9SES communications satellite providing direct-to-home services in Northeast Asia, South Asia and Indonesia, and maritime communications to  Indian Ocean ships.
 August 2015Falcon 9Cape Canaveral Orbcomm OG211 second-generation Orbcomm communications satellites
Fourth Quarter 2015Falcon HeavyKennedy Space Center UnknownDemonstration flight of the 3-core, 28-engine heavy-lift launch vehicle
Fourth Quarter 2015Falcon 9Cape CanaveralEutelsat 117 West B & ABS 2APair of Boeing satellites using all-electric propulsion. Eutelsat 117 West B will provide communications services to Latin America. ABS 2A will serve Russia, India, Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean area.
Fourth Quarter 2015Falcon 9Cape CanaveralJCSAT 14Providing data, television and mobile communications services in Hawaii, Japan, East Asia, Russia, and Oceania.
Second Half 2015Modified Falcon 9VandenbergDragon test articleIn-flight abort test for the Dragon V2 crew vehicle
First Quarter 2016Falcon 9Cape CanaveralAmos 6Communications and broadcast services to U.S. East Coast, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
First Quarter 2016Falcon 9
VandenbergIridium Next10 Iridium Next mobile communications satellites

A Falcon 9 was to have launched 11 OG2 satellites for Orbcomm in August. Another rocket was scheduled to boost 10 Iridium Next satellites into orbit for Iridium during the first quarter of 2016.

SpaceX also was scheduled to launch communications satellites during this period for Eutelsat, SES, Spacecom, SKY Perfect JSAT Corp., and Asia Broadcast Satellite of Bermuda and Hong Kong.

The accident will likely mean a delay in the first demonstration flight of the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, which was scheduled to occur by the end of the year. SpaceX had originally scheduled to have the heavy-lift launcher flying by early 2013, but the company ran into delays.

Fourth Quarter 2015Falcon HeavyNoneUnknownFirst demonstration flight of the 3-core, 28-engine heavy-lift launch vehicle
2016Falcon HeavyDODLightSail,Prox-1 nanosatellite, Green Propellant Infusion MissionSecond demonstration mission in support of USAF certification of Falcon Heavy
2016Falcon Heavy
ViaSat, Inc.ViaSat-2Ka-Band broadband satellite
2017Falcon Heavy
IridiumCommunications satelliteGeosynchronous satellite
2018Falcon Heavy
ArabsatArabsat 6ASaudia Arabian communications satellite

  • windbourne

    They were doing so well.

    Oh well, better a stand down than another failure.

    Now, we have atlas launching Cygnus.

  • Sam Moore

    Given the full manifests SpaceX and Arianespace already had, and Proton’s post-failure backlog, this has come at a terrible time for the satellite communications industry. Expect some commercial Atlas V/H-II orders, because now there’s nothing else free for years.

  • Barnaby Osborne

    No mention of changes to the next CRS flights though?

  • Douglas Messier

    No. I looked at Spaceflightnow’s launch schedule, and they have two or three additional Dragon resupply missions taking place during the rest of 2015 and into 2016. However, they’re not on NASA’s schedule for that period, so I didn’t include them. It’s a bit of a mystery as to when the next Dragons were supposed to visit station.

  • TimR

    Just to remind everyone, while there’s been a long running dreamscape with SpaceX, there’s always been this risk. SpaceX remains a one-hit wonder. ULA has the strength of two independent launch systems. One fails and the other is not grounded. SpaceX is grounded … until problem is understood and resolved.

    Hopefully it will be quick because SpaceX is like “our only hope” (yeah Star Wars-like). They are years ahead of any other private commercial firm that is not ULA or its affiliates or co-creators.

    Every time a failure occurs with Falcon, it is down time for Falcon 9 and the future Falcon Heavy. Diversification may be something being kicked around, wouldn’t you think? Could they acquire another concern that could provide a fast track to a second launch system?

    If they hold to just Falcon, there remains this risk of 3 to 6 month down times (maybe more but unlikely). It will be interesting how they deal with this reality made clear yesterday.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    I am afraid the whole business case of SpaceX relies on more “mass production” which should lead to lower costs* (albeit, as many mentioned, mass production with high quality standards will be difficult and now we are seeing it). In this situation internal competition in SpaceX can be difficult/cost increasing (although in long term it can be good both in terms of delivery and in terms of creation of better solution; what is more, at the time being SpaceX failed to create real mass launches – they need to go for a number of launch sites which is not the same as 1 launch site with a fast, mass launch process).

    * and everyone here wants to believe that this costs are really massively lowered and it is thanks t obetter tech and mass production and not to just cut legacy, bureaucracy and labour costs at the expense of employees.

  • Barnaby Osborne

    Thanks for that. CRS-8 and 9 were meant to go this year. We have a payload manifested for CRS-9 but the CRS missions have historically been massively delayed, so we have not been holding out much hope that they would end up going this year 🙂

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Doug, last sentence of 2nd paragraph, “in-flight” what?

  • Aerospike

    I just wanted to point out the same thing. I guess it should have been something like:
    The manifest included the debut of the company’s 28-engine Falcon Heavy
    launch vehicle and an in-flight abort(test of Dragon V2)using a modified Falcon 9 rocket by the
    end 2015.


  • Aerospike

    We do not know what caused the failure yet, so stating implicitly that we now see that mass production at high quality standards is the problem is premature and pure speculation. It could be the case, it could be something completely different. Some folks (again: pure speculation!) even tossed around the idea that IDA-1 could have become loose in the trunk and punctured the second stage. In that case the problem is more likely related to payload processing (it wasn’t properly secured), not manufacturing.

    But again: at this point everything is pure speculation!

  • Larry J

    One of the things I’ve always respected about SpaceX is their ability to identify and fix problems. Other than some issues with their helium pressurization system, they almost never have the same problem twice. Since SpaceX manufactures almost all of their rocket and capsule components, they don’t waste time with finger pointing. They know it’s a SpaceX problem that has to be fixed. To date, no one seems to know what caused this malfunction. It could be a case that no one who knows anything is talking while those of us talking doing really know anything. All we can do at this point is speculate as to the cause. I’m confident they will find the cause before too long and fix it so that it won’t happen again.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    I would have thought that was the one mission that could go off on schedule, unless of course there is some issue with the first stage surviving until Max-Q. They don’t need a functional second stage for the abort test, right ? Just some sort of mechanical interface to join it with the core ?

  • patb2009

    I think only SpaceX knows their business case, but two factors should be considered. 1) Running two separate booster lines with separate engines is not cheap. ULA spends a fortune keeping independent supply running. SpaceX shutdown the Falcon 1. 2) I suspect a reusable booster has been a big part of the falcon 9 business case. They have gotten very close to a recovery of that first stage.

  • therealdmt

    I was thinking that too — assuming the issue was not with the first stage, why not do that inflight abort during the downtime? The accident made it abundantly clear that an inflight launch escape capability is critical for manned missions and, with the capsule seeming to have initially survived the explosion but being ultimately lost, how it could be very useful for precious cargos in the Dragon cargo capsule.

    Of course, SpaceX’s first priority will be the accident investigation and then designing and executing the required fixes, etc., but there are other teams within the company (like say the ones building the Texas spaceport) that won’t be involved with the accident and will be largely carrying on. The Dragon 2 team, including the launch abort team, may be among those not heavily working on accident related issues.

    Also, it would be a good way of showing the world (and congress) that SpaceX is very much carrying on and even continuing to advance, despite the big setback.

  • TimR

    There was nothing said about stresses on the vehicle during Max Q. Shearing forces could have pried something loose. The region of highest stresses (Max Q) was probably around 100 secs into flight. SpaceX should have stated and dismissed flight conditions as a possible cause; likely the case but one wonders now.

  • TimR

    Some educated guesses and speculative (what-if) thinking is part of problem solving like this, especially now that it appears that the telemetry has not coffed up the cause. Musk stated they were looking at the last milliseconds but that has passed and they apparently found nothing. If they are not holding back right now, then they are looking at processes and even design. Get out theTums and Pepto-Bismol. Ramping up production is a real risk. “Too many chefs spoil the broth.” I’ve seen software engineers thrown at jobs running into deadlines which had catastrophic results. Similarly ramping up production with new staff and even new managers overseeing is high risk. They would be wise to have forced every team to go into immediate evaluation and delivery of their probable causes for the anomaly (all the way down to the team of janitors 🙂 )


  • windbourne

    Exactly right.
    However, this time, they are taking much longer to solve this.
    This one appears to be complicated.

  • TimR

    A comment I made to Musk was that this anomaly is a birthday present in disguise. Better now than during a HSF. Generally, I think this was survivable but the question is whether the event would have caused acceleration forces that would literally break a human neck. Such a break up could cause sudden tumbling or even rupture of the capsule or of attached pressurants.

    On the 19th of June I sent out a tweet linked to a Pratt & Whitney tweet about FAA certification of their new engine production. P&W have been in production of engines for a long time, critical to safe commercial flight. I would expect (or hope) that SpaceX manufacturing practices leaned heavily on experience and case studies from these aviation companies.


  • Aerospike

    Not sure why your response is directed at me. I never mentioned stresses on the vehicle and/or Max Q either 😉

  • TimR

    directed to anyone but you mention IDA-1 and stresses during Max Q could lead to payload materials coming loose.


    What SpaceX needs to do to get back on schedule sooner

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    You are right Aerospike, firstly I could’ve been too brief. Although the serial manufacturing keeps being underlined I could’ve written “mass operations” or “a delivery on a mass scale” – as not only manufacturing is accident prone, relies on trade expertise and can be aimed to be more standardized, frequent and cheaper but also all the operations (as I mentioned launch site but this includes everything from customers relations and payload preparation through fitting and launch to the recovery and reusability).

    Of course it is premature to judge now but – as you mention the payload handling – it will be challenging to have the payload expertise and QA at the top level during frequent flights in multiple locations. Certainly one can argue that thanks to the scale better checklists, tools and procedures may be developed and the numerous and various flights are the best possible learning base for the company – but still some hiccups can occur on the way.

    Certainly at the moment there is no technical evidence to blame the increase of scale and please apologize my unfortunate wording here – however Tim noticed one negative side of the “mass production approach”: standards require this case to be investigated and in the meantime -on the contrary to e.g. Russians or Arianespace – there is no second kid to send them to the grocery storrr… err, orbit. 😉

  • Arthur Hamilton

    Falcon 9 is one of the most heavily instrumented rockets around. All of the data that the rocket was transmitting when the second stage exploded has to be reviewed. I believe the cause is in the data somewhere.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    The rocket flew through that strange looking cloud and then the second stage malfunctioned. On CRS-1(SPX-2) the F-9 flew through a strange looking cloud and an engine malfunctioned. Maybe the cloud was trying something else to make the rocket explode.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    I wonder if it is possible to integrate an Orbital/ATK Castor 30XL as a second stage alternative in the F-9 vehicle? Anyone?

  • Snofru Chufu

    What is the base of your believe?

  • Snofru Chufu

    This would probably mean a significant investment in systems engineering, configuration management and quality management at SpaceX. Processes that are not full deployed at SpaceX as some guys have proposed. Assuming that assumption are correct: If those processes are applied to full necessary extent, it could result in significant increase of Spacex’s launch prices.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    SpaceX sources.

  • Hug Doug

    SpaceX reported they have 3,000 channels of telemetry to look at. That’s a lot of separate lines of data, and a lot of data overall.

  • Snofru Chufu

    It is fine to have these data, but it is not sure that they are able to find cause at end definitively only based on the telemetry data. They may need parts of the stage itself, for example to prove causes as a bad welding or a material fracture.

  • Hug Doug

    That may be true, but the telemetry data would still be crucial for telling them where they need to look.

  • Snofru Chufu

    What we know at least up ton now: No easy available answer (after thousands working hours of review).