The race to commercial space flight—and more affordable space exploration, in general—has been a volatile one. Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, of course, has led the charge through the development reusable rockets.
Or, rather, the attempt to develop reusable rockets.
On September 1st, SpaceX was preparing a Falcon 9 rocket on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral, in Florida. The test involved turning on the rocket’s engines while the vehicle is constrained: hence the “static fire” test. The goal of this test was to see if the latest Falcon 9 rocket is ready for its upcoming launch, which will help to put Israeli communications satellite—the Amos-6—into orbit. Unfortunately, though, the test saw both the saw and the rocket destroyed in an explosion before they could even begin the test.
The good news, perhaps, is that this explosion is not related to the SpaceX Falcon 9 explosion from 2015, both this recent explosion and that 2015 event were due to problems with vehicle’s upper liquid oxygen tanks. Also, both explosions involved the vehicle’s helium system, though in different ways: Last year’s explosion was the result of a faulty strut within the liquid oxygen tank that is used to hold down a helium pressure vessel.
For this explosion, though, the company is still narrowing down the potential causes. In a statement, SpaceX has said, “All plausible causes are being tracked in an extensive fault tree and carefully investigated.” The SpaceX Accident Investigation Team is still conducting an investigation—a thorough analysis of 3,000 channels of data—which includes pouring through video and audio recordings that distills down to only 93 milliseconds.
And in that 93 milliseconds, the company lost more than $250 million in technology; so there is a lot riding on this investigation.
But while they continue their investigation, SpaceX also says that they are working to prepare its vehicles ready NASA’s upcoming Commercial Crew Program. For this program, SpaceX has been slated to initiate the transportation of astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station, within the next couple years.
Indeed, the company reports: “Getting back to flight safely and reliably is our top priority, and the data gathered from the present investigation will result in an even safer and more reliable vehicle for our customers and partners.”