Falcon 9 Pad Failure Throws SpaceX Schedule into Doubt

Falcon 9 explodes on the launch pad. (Credit: USLaunchReport.com)
Falcon 9 explodes on the launch pad. (Credit: USLaunchReport.com)

The loss of a Falcon 9 rocket and its Amos 6 communications satellite payload in a launch pad accident on Friday morning throws the company’s ambitious launch schedule into confusion.

SpaceX has launched eight rockets successfully in 2016. The company had planned 10 more launches by the end of this year.  (See table below; information courtesy of Spaceflightnow.com). That plan was very ambitious, and it is unclear the company would have flown all these missions.

Planned SpaceX Launches
DateLaunch VehiclePayloadLaunch Site
09/03/16Falcon 9Amos 6Cape Canaveral
09/19/16Falcon 9Iridium 1-10
OctoberFalcon 9Formosat 5 & SherpaVandenberg
OctoberFalcon 9SES 10Cape Canaveral
Fourth QuarterFalcon 9EchoStar 23Cape Canaveral
Fourth QuarterFalcon 9SES 11/EchoStar 105Cape Canaveral
11/11/16Falcon 9CRS 10Cape Canaveral
NovemberFalcon HeavyDemo FlightKennedy Space Center
DecemberFalcon 9Iridium Next 11-20Vandenberg
4th QuarterFalcon 9Koreasat 5ACape Canaveral
02/01/17Falcon 9CRS-11Cape Canaveral
06/01/17Falcon 9CRS-12Cape Canaveral
TBDFalcon HeavySTP-2Kennedy Space Center

Six of the remaining 10 missions for 2016 were to launch from the pad damaged in today’s explosion. Three additional flights would have taken place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. SpaceX also planned to debut its Falcon Heavy from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida before the end of the year.

How quickly SpaceX can resume flights depends upon the results of the investigation and any changes that are required in the rocket or ground equipment. The damaged launch pad will need to be repaired.

It’s conceivable that SpaceX might move some of its launches to Pad 39A. The facility is being modified for both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles. However, it is unclear what such a move would require in terms of financial and human resources. The precise status of the pad’s modifications are also uncertain.

The Vandenberg launch complex is used to place spacecraft into polar orbits. Thus, it is not well suited for SpaceX’s bread and butter, which involves launching geosynchronous communications satellites to equatorial orbits and resupplying the International Space Station with Dragon cargo ships.

SpaceX is building a commercial spaceport near Brownsville, Texas. However, the completion of that facility is still a couple of years away. The main focus now is bringing in tons of soil to stabilize the site so that structures can be built on it.