SpaceXplosion

For a while, it appeared that Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, was unstoppable. By 2012, only 10 years after the company’s founding, SpaceX manufactured the lowest-cost rockets in the industry. A mere two years later, CEO Elon Musk spoke of creating fully reusable rockets – a feat that had never been accomplished prior – and transporting humans in order to “make human life multi-planetary.”

But the recent June 28 crash of an unmanned Falcon 9 vehicle does not bode well for Musk, who, until recently, spoke of settling Mars and building hyperloops. The Falcon 9 was bound for the International Space Station and exploded a couple of minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“There’s a huge, huge question about the cause of this failure, not from a point of view of finger-pointing, but for understanding if we should expect new vehicles to operate reliably from the beginning,” said Carissa Christensen, managing partner of The Tauri Group.

Other analysts in the aerospace industry are concerned SpaceX might be unaware of its limitations.

“I don’t think SpaceX was careless, but I think that one of the dangers was SpaceX getting a little too overconfident.” Marco Caceres, a space industry analyst at Teal Group, recently said. “They may need to slow down a bit.”

Still, it remains highly unlikely that this accident will seriously affect SpaceX’s revenue. Many clients, including NASA and Iridium Communications, appear committed to using SpaceX’s services despite the June 28 explosion. SpaceX still has contracts for 50 more launches, which amounts to more than $7 billion in revenue, according to reporting by the New York Times.

In the context of recent rocket failures, the June 28 crash is not particularly out-of-the-ordinary. In October 2014, Orbital Sciences lost an unmanned Antares rocket heading to the International Space Station. In April 2015, Russian rocket firm Progress also lost a vehicle carrying cargo to the International Space Station.

SpaceX’s low-cost vehicles and its track record of six successful ferry trips to the International Space Station still make the company desirable among firms that need to transport cargo. This most recent crash has drawn attention not because SpaceX had made a grave mistake, but because there are high expectations for the company.

“One failure is not a tragedy,” Caceres said. “These things happen occasionally. The key is that it not become a pattern.”

High expectations, harsh fall

Slightly before the Falcon 9 crash, SpaceX announced June 10 on its website that it had been “making great strides” towards producing the very first completely reusable spacecraft. The report suggested that reusable technology could drastically lower costs and make human travel in space much more financially feasible.

Traditionally, spacecraft have burned upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, which set government agencies and private firms back millions of dollars each time they launched a vehicle. The majority of space flight’s exorbitant costs originated from the construction of the vehicle, which only flew once.

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred,” Musk said. “A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”

According to Michael Belfiore in Foreign Policy, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets already claim the distinction of being the cheapest spacecraft in the industry, with a cost of $56.5 million to achieve orbit, which is less than $2,500 per pound to orbit. But with reusable technology, SpaceX can cut the cost of achieving orbit even further to approximately $5 million, which works out to only $220 per pound. Space travel analyst Ajay Kothari concurs, claiming that SpaceX’s reusable technology could change space travel in the same way that jet engines changed air travel.

SpaceX’s recent announcements seemed to suggest the firm could finally reduce the prohibitively high costs that stalled space travel. Moreover, within the aerospace industry, SpaceX has been the only company that saw the necessary demand elasticity to justify investing in reusable rocket technology, according to Jeff Foust of the Space Review. SpaceX’s vision for reusability drew much attention, and it resulted in even more scrutiny for the company when its Falcon 9 exploded mid-air.

“There’s never really a good time for a rocket to blow up, I guess. But, this one is pretty bad,” said Ashlee Vance, biographer of Musk. “SpaceX had really just started to hit its stride.”

Going forward

But it would be unlike SpaceX to give in because of a few technical difficulties or a single explosion. In 2013, SpaceX surprised engineers and executives in the industry when the company solved what was then thought to be the primary deterrent to reusability.

Developing a reusable rocket is difficult because only a small portion of a rocket’s mass (3%) actually makes it to space. This is also approximately the percentage mass in fuel that is necessary for reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Other spacecraft manufacturers claimed that these constraints would make reentry physically impossible. Needless to say, Musk was right – SpaceX’s Grasshopper successfully achieved reentry after only two years of testing.

Of course, the space travel industry is still in its infant stages, as evidenced by the Falcon 9 explosion. But this industry still has potential for future rewards, and cost-saving technology is being developed at a rapid pace. If private firms are successful in not only reducing spacecraft costs, but also making spaceflight less prone to failure, then they might revitalize the aerospace industry.

Although the June 28 accident might have drawn unwanted publicity for the company, it will likely not have disastrous consequences for SpaceX. Rather, the explosion may merely be part of the growing pain for the still-young SpaceX.