SpaceX, the Mars-bound rocket-ship builder founded by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, suffered a major operational blow last Thursday morning: One of the firm’s Falcon 9 rockets exploded on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida shortly after 9 a.m., producing shock waves that eyewitnesses said could be felt in buildings several miles from the Kennedy Space Center. Local media reported thick, black plumes of smoke rising from Launch Complex 40 as late as 10:30 a.m. local time.
Mike Curie, a staff member at the nearby Titusville Area Chamber of Commerce, compared the sensation to a sonic boom. “We were sitting here and all of a sudden … the building started to shake,” he told the Florida Today. “There were a couple of minor booms after that and then we went outside and saw the smoke plume. It was a well-defined plume, not like a controlled burn.”
Explosion at SpaceX Pad 40 at 9:07am ET resulted in loss of the rocket & the payload. Pad was clear & no injuries. pic.twitter.com/4KQD1MvOmz
— talia landman (@taliaeliana) September 1, 2016
The Associated Press reported that the Falcon 9 rocket, which was scheduled to launch a $195 million Amos-6 communications satellite for Israeli company Spacecom at 3 a.m. Saturday, experienced a “catastrophic abort” during a static fire test — a standard diagnostic in which each of the rocket’s nine Merlin main engines are switched on in sequence. According to SpaceX, the explosion occurred as propellant was being loaded into the Rocket’s upper stage oxygen tank.
Surrounding areas had been cleared in advance of the test, and the Brevard County Emergency Management Office (EMO) said in a tweet that there was no immediate threat to residents in nearby developments. “There are no hazards,” director Kimberly Prosser told Florida Today. “We’re monitoring the situation, but there have been no requests for assistance.”
A SpaceX spokesman corroborated the EMO’s account late Thursday morning. “SpaceX can confirm that in preparation for today’s static fire, there was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload,” he told The Verge. “Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries.”
— Sam Jordan (@Sam_Jordan80) September 1, 2016
A investigative task force was deployed to the scene shortly after initial report of an explosion. The U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, the division in charge of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, told The Verge that there were “no known casualties” and “no threat to public safety,” but urged members of the public to avoid any and all nearby areas impacted by the explosion. “CCAFS Emergency Management is providing the initial on-scene response. Roadblocks will be set up in and around CCAFS, so we ask that you avoid the entrance to the Air Force Station until further notice. We will provide updates as they become available.”
Separately, Kennedy Space Center’s Emergency Operations Center said that it continues to “monitor the situation” and is “standing by to assist” if required. And it said its environmental health division was monitoring the air for toxins that might present a danger to campus personnel.
NASA says SpaceX was conducting a test firing of its unmanned rocket when the blast occurred Thursday morning. pic.twitter.com/Bc7kNiq6E0
— WESH 2 News (@WESH) September 1, 2016
The rocket’s launch was highly anticipated. Facebook teamed up with communications provider Eutelstat to lease capacity on Spacecom’s satellite, primarily for the purpose of expanding the former’s Internet.org initiative, a nonprofit aimed at offering free and low-cost internet connectivity in developing nations. Saturday’s launch was intended to buoy the organization’s efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Meanwhile, the stakes for SpaceX couldn’t be higher. The company suffered a similar setback in June of last year, when one of its Falcon 9 rockets exploded en route to the International Space Station (ISS). Since then, the company appeared to have begun a long, slow climb toward recovery: It successfully launched the Orbcomm-2 satellite in December, and successfully landed a Falcon 9 rocket shortly after. It completed a second landing in late July.
— Josh Miranda (@JMirandaWDBO) September 1, 2016
It’s unclear how Thursday’s setback will impact the company’s future plans. SpaceX had intended to launch the Falcon Heavy, a larger and more powerful variant of the Falcon 9, in the coming months. And it hopes to begin ferrying astronauts to the ISS as soon as next year.
The explosion could prove a boon for SpaceX’s burgeoning competition as well. Blue Origin, the private space firm founded by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, successfully completed a post-launch landing of its New Shepard rocket earlier this year. And in April, French rocket company Arianespace inked a deal with engine maker Safran to produce rockets capable of delivering space-bound payloads “affordably.”
But some industry watchers are unconcerned. “The latest explosion of a SpaceX Falcon rocket following earlier explosions in January and June 2015 indicates the inherent unpredictability and risk involved in space flight, whether manned or unmanned, and whether missions are led by NASA or by commercial contractors,” Loizos Heracleous, a Professor of Strategy at the Warwick Business School who’s worked with NASA, told Digital Trends.
“With space missions, even the most advanced simulations cannot replace learning by doing, given the multitude of variables involved and the importance of learning from experience. This explosion will not change the long term goals of SpaceX.”
That said, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is still having a lot of trouble explaining exactly what happened. On Thursday, the executive issued his first statement since the original confirmation of the explosion. In a series of tweets, Musk noted, “Still working on the Falcon fireball investigation. Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years.” He continued, “Important to note that this happened during a routine filling operation. Engines were not on and there was no apparent heat source.” The entrepreneur is also asking for help in his company’s investigation, tweeting at NASA, the FAA, and the AFPAA (and the general public, too), to “email any recordings of the event to email@example.com.”