By now, you’ve probably heard of SpaceX’s catastrophic launch failure: on June 28th, their Falcon 9 rocket exploded less than three minutes into its takeoff.
Fortunately, no lives were lost- the Falcon 9 was an unmanned rocket tasked with transporting nearly 4,000 pounds of critical supplies to the International Space Station. And fortunately for the three men aboard the ISS, on July 3rd Russia’s Progress 60 successfully delivered that important cargo, ending a harrowing summer of failed launches and depleting air, food and fuel aboard the station.
In spite of all of this, the focus of the media attention has mainly been on the launch failure of SpaceX’s signature rocket, depicting it as the great embarrassment for not just the company and its high-profile founder Elon Musk, but for the intersection of entrepreneurial business and spaceflight as a whole. This perspective is compounded by the recent loss of newcomer Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket (on a similar supply run to the ISS, no less) last October.
But this view is short-sighted. First, it selectively ignores SpaceX’s stellar history despite their youth as a company. The Falcon 9’s explosion came during its 19th launch in less than five years, the only failure in a long string of quick and efficient successes. Second, it relies too much on our perceptions of business as a cutthroat, zero-sum game. Surely there are business implications to the Falcon 9’s explosion. Prominent competitor United Launch Alliance, a coalition of aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will capitalize on this failure and Orbital ATK’s if they can. But in addition to being a business venture, each journey into space- whether to the moon or simply to low earth orbit- is part of our decades old race to the stars, not just for the glory of being first, but towards the dream of establishing a more complete, more permanent presence somewhere else beyond our little blue marble.
All evidence currently points to the second stage’s liquid oxygen tank overpressurizing and then rupturing. And this will not be the last time you hear of such a sudden mission failure. Spaceflight is propelled by rocketry, and for all its complexity and advancement, rocketry is still essentially just strapping ourselves and our equipment onto towers of compressed fuel, a volatile endeavor to say the least. We can speculate on what advancements will need to be made to avoid an event like this in the future- perhaps protecting the fuel tanks from the massive vibrations of late-stage flight, perhaps any number of other things, but we should never lose sight of the optimism a company like SpaceX should provide us with.
Private-sector spaceflight pioneers have been taking on the burden of furthering our understanding of spaceflight for as long as dwindling budgets and slackened public interest have challenged our official space agency’s ability to innovate there. Just as NASA has experienced the heartbreak of failure, many times with real human cost, SpaceX’s experience with the loss of a single rocket is part of the cost of participation in this incredible human endeavor. Let’s be grateful for this failure, and hope that its lessons will further our understanding of spaceflight, just as many have before.