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
Vandenberg
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.

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  • Smokey_the_Bear

    If I had to guess, I bet they will launch 1 more this year…damn shame.

  • Charles Lurio

    Thanks for putting this together, Doug.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    A rough offset for the audio on the YouTube video is -12.21s. A lot happens in 1/25 of a second and it’s hard to tell if the explosion started on the strongback or within the rocket. The fire was very intense. In slo-mo you can see the smoke coming off of the lightning towers from the paint being heated.

    It’s going to be a mess to clean up just like the Antares pad explosion. If there isn’t another strongback in spares, it could take 3-6 months to reclaim and rebuild the launch pad. The 45th AFSW, NTSB, NASA, and Homemade security are all going to want to do investigations and that will delay the time that basic clean up can begin. Just finding out the source of the problem might take a couple of months if there is enough evidence left to tell.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    It remains to be seen if VAFB will put the 9/19 launch on hold until an investigation is done. I wouldn’t give very good odds on SpaceX getting another launch in this year.

  • Charles Lurio

    I should add that earlier today someone said to the effect of,”No problem, they can just move it to 39A.” Aside from figuring out what went wrong, the status of 39A is unclear at this time, as you point out. I also note that since that pad has been under modification to accommodate both F9 and FH, (AND FH was to be the first launch from there) system complexity is clearly going to be more than at SL-40. Pushing it to start out with F9 may not be a great idea.

  • Kapitalist

    Really? Last time they made 6 month pause and suspended all development work on the Falcon Heavy to concentrate resources on the problem. Next launch maybe in the Easter. Maybe they’ll wait a whole year to develop a new upper stage, the cause of both failures.

  • Saturn13

    If you want to see the explosion from the start, use ImageGrab4.exe. It’s free for personal use. Video maybe 32 fps. So 32 pictures to look at in that second. Ought to show a lot. I did a search to find it. It worked well with an AVI I took. Frame by frame and frame grab. There are sure to be others. I have not ran it on this video, if someone would do it and say how they did it.

  • Aerospike

    It really depends on the outcome of the investigation into the “anomaly”.
    If it takes a long time to figure out what exactly happened, then we probably won’t see any more launches this year. possibly a 6 months gap like last time.
    If the identified cause requires a lot of time and resources to fix the problem, then again we won’t see any more launches this year.

    If the cause can be identified quickly and turns out to be some “stupid mistake” (instead of some serious problem that requires a redesign of some components), then I’m quite confident that we’ll see at least one or two of the Vandenberg launches this year.

    One thing is clear though after watching the video: Pad 40 took some serious damage and that one is out until Easter or longer for sure.

  • Christopher James Huff

    You are assuming the upper stage was the cause of this failure. From the video, the trouble looks associated with the umbilicals, and it may have been a failure of the ground equipment. If so, they can make corrections at VAFB and while finishing up LC39, and if it’s a simple fix, they could be back to launching this year.

  • Christopher James Huff

    They were planning to launch one or two Falcon 9s before launching a Heavy, specifically SES-10 and 11. It made sense, since that only requires a subset of the functionality there and their schedule was already crowded.

  • kmbog

    Does this event change US Air Force certification for launching their payloads?

  • Arthur Hamilton

    What a sad day Looks like it’s going to be another December return to flight. Guess flight ops will concentrate on finishing up 39A while LC-40 is slowly rebuilt.

  • Michael Grigoni

    If using MS Windows, permit me to suggest using ‘virtualdub’ – it is open source and a standard application in any videographers toolkit. Download the video using a browser download extension (if necessary) in mp4 format. Open in ‘virtualdub’ and work with each frame as needed. If you want to serve frames to other applications use ‘avisynth’ (and a very simple one-line script that invokes either directshowsource() or ffmpegsource() ) – again all open source and standard.

  • Douglas Messier

    Good question. I don’t know what the process is for decertifying a launch vehicle. The Air Force has been primarily using Delta IV and Atlas V for more than a decade now. Neither rocket has yet to suffer a catastrophic failure (knock wood).

    Air Force has a very close working relationship with ULA which goes back to when the rockets were developed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. USAF has a lot of insight into these rockets. When anomalies have occurred, I believe USAF has been involved in the investigations.

  • Douglas Messier

    Someone pointed out to me yesterday that SpaceX’s resources are going to be very constrained. They’re going to be preoccupied with the investigation for a while. No payments for launches that aren’t happening. Need to finish work on Pad 39A. Repair Pad 40. And then there’s commercial crew, whose schedule is wrecked and getting wreckier.

  • JamesG

    Depends on if they can quickly find a root cause that isn’t directly related to the F9. The fueling umbilical or the FTS charges or initiation/safing, etc.

  • Snofru Chufu

    I hope this event has a healing effect in relation to overhyped SpaceX and its supporter communities. I hope all those guy become more grounded and less pop-cultured.That could be a positive outcome of the bad situation.

    BTW, a similar event (stage explosion during a test) happened at Jan 1967 with S-IV-B-503, which exploded by rupture of a helium vessel/tank.

  • therealdmt

    I wonder if Musk will still do his Mars architecture speech later this month.

    Seems like it would be kind of a bad time to be talking about Mars when you can’t even get a satellite into Earth orbit. Customers, including NASA, might justifiably wonder about focus, too…

    Man, this sucks. I was really hoping for a big string of successes (Mars architecture announced, first reflows booster, largest rocket since the Saturn 5, test flight of Dragon 2, first reflight of a cargo Dragon, all with a backdrop of a steady cadence of launches and landings) as the election campaigns unfolded and the new administration got its feet wet. By the time they got around to space next summer, it would have been all laid out for them which was the way to go.

    Now, of course, the path is at the least muddied, and space won’t even be much in the news/on the national radar…

    This sucks.

  • publiusr

    I have never trusted composites for tankage.

  • kmbog

    When was SpaceX schedule to launch their first USAF satellite?

  • windbourne

    Other than possibly needing to pull ppl from it to help with investigation, along with perhaps needing a long record of no issues on launch failures, why would this impact commercial crew?
    In fact, the more that I think about this, most of the ppl working on Dragon V2, probably came from Dragon V1, and therefore would not have any real experience on F9. As such, I can not see why human launch rating would be impacted.
    It seems like FH might be the main one impacted.

    Also, with these pads, 39A has had all sorts of work done to it to get it ready. I would think that many of the ppl that worked on it, would be going to work now on 40, and later on, on Texas. IOW, pad repair should not pull anybody from other missions.

  • Snofru Chufu

    You stated “As such, I can not see why human launch rating would be impacted.”

    Are you blind?

  • windbourne

    There was a time when most everybody was a jack-of-all-trades and moved across projects. At this time, I suspect that SpaceX has their engineering ppl devoted to projects and with little x-over work going on.

    So, again, if the ppl on the dragon do not have experience on the F9, possibly on rockets, and are not pulled off the dragon human rating, then what would slow it down?

  • Kapitalist

    While the CRS-7 failure was a NASA mission, this was not, so it seems as if SpaceX can investigate it themselves much faster. (unless the launchpad is NASA’s to investigate?) The Main Engine Cut Off blog quotes Gerstenmaier admiring how quickly SpaceX worked after CRS-7.

  • Douglas Messier

    SpaceX got little done on commercial crew for months after last accident. Some of that might have been NASA while other part might have been SpaceX resources.

    Pad 39A still requires a couple of months work. Pad 40 needs to be rebuilt. There’s an investigation to conduct. SpaceX isnt exact overstaffed. People already work long hours. Some workers on commercial crew are on other projects. The accident will consume a fair amount of exec time which leaves them unavailable for other duties. Not flying will also affect cash flow.

    Here’s a problem that could affect crew. SpaceX is using the densified propellant. It also wants to load the propellant after crew is on board. NASA wasn’t comfortable with either idea before the explosion. They must be freaking out now.

    Elon pushed reuseability which added weight and reduced performance. That required upgrades to the Falcon 9 full thrust version. Full thrust required densified propellants. That in turn increased complexity and impacted commercial crew.

    What else happens now with commercial crew kind of depends on cause of accident and changes required.

  • windbourne

    good points.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Often, composite tanks have an inner metallic core for compatibility with what they will be filled with. The wrapped outer shell can be many times stronger than a wholly metal tank. The tricky part to get right is the connections.

  • patb2009

    USAF/IC will not be letting their “High-Value” payloads fly for a while.

    If they have confidence they will let GPS or comm birds go up.

  • Kirk

    I will be interesting to see what is finally decided regarding crew boarding time. It could be argued that it is safer to have the crew strapped in and the abort system armed before propellant loading begins, than to expose the boarding crew and support personnel to the fully fueled rocket.