1 year after Falcon 9 explosion, SpaceX makes 2017 its banner year
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — One year ago, on Sept. 1, 2016, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Florida during a seemingly routine static fire test. The fireball destroyed not only the rocket and a large portion of the launch pad but also a satellite belonging to the Israeli company Spacecom, which was scheduled to launch just three days later. The company has come a long way since then.
The explosion was later deemed to have been caused by a buckled liner in one of the carbon overwrapped pressure vessels that allowed super-cooled liquid oxygen to accumulate, which was ignited by friction. The investigation was completed by January 2017.
Because the explosion damaged a large portion of SLC-40, SpaceX accelerated its work to complete modifications to Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) in order to resume launching Falcon 9 rockets sooner. Once work was completed and the first rocket launched, repair work on SLC-40 began.
The Sept. 1, 2016, explosion was a huge setback for not just SpaceX, but for NASA’s Commercial Crew and Commercial Resupply Services programs. However, in the aftermath of the accident, SpaceX has also achieved remarkable success with its Falcon 9 rocket, with 12 launches so far and eight more planned in 2017. That’s more than any other company or country in the world, topping even Russia, with its 11 launches so far this year.
Additionally, SpaceX racked up its 15th first stage landing, most of which have been in the last seven months, to be qualified for potential reuse. This is part of the Hawthorne, California-based company’s ambitions to lower the cost of spaceflight by orders of magnitude.
Two of these recovered boosters were refurbished and re-flown on missions in April and June of this year. Additionally, SpaceX flew its first used Dragon capsule into orbit to become the first spacecraft to make a return trip to the International Space Station since the end of the Space Shuttle program.
On Feb. 27, 2017, SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk, announced plans to fly two paying passengers around the Moon in 2018. This would take place after the first crewed Dragon mission to the ISS, which was scheduled for late 2017 but has now been bumped to 2018.
Some have asked whether SpaceX is trying to accomplish too much too fast. The company is currently working to perfect first stage landings, continuing sending cargo to the ISS, design a human-rated spacecraft, developing a methane-based engine called Raptor, test advanced rocket material for use on future giant Mars rocket, and build a private spaceport in Texas, just to name a few, and that doesn’t include its backlog of commercial launches.
Additionally, SpaceX plans to launch its years-delayed Falcon Heavy rocket as early as November 2017. In order to do that, however, the company needs to finish repairing SLC-40 and bring it back online so that LC-39A can be modified to support the triple-core rocket.
SpaceX has also yet to finish designing its seven-person Dragon 2 spacecraft, but the company hopes to send the first test missions into orbit in the first half of 2018, after years of delays. Boeing, which is designing the CST-100 Starliner for the Commercial Crew Program, has also suffered multiple delays.
While designing Dragon 2, the company had plans for an uncrewed version called Red Dragon for missions to Mars as early as 2018. This spacecraft would have been launched by the Falcon Heavy rocket and used to test re-entry and landing procedures using the spacecraft’s SuperDraco thrusters and other equipment needed for eventual colonization.
However, in 2017, the first launch of the Red Dragon was pushed from 2018 to 2020, and in July of 2017, Musk announced there would be no further funding for Red Dragon. Instead, the company will be directing its funding to larger spacecraft.
Regardless of whether the company is doing too much, or just the right amount, SpaceX continues to march forward. The rest of 2017 is expected to see Musk showcase modifications to the Interplanetary Transport System that scale back the scope of the project, more boosters recovered and re-flown.
Also, if it launches on time, the triple-core Falcon Heavy launch could see the simultaneous powered return of two Falcon first stages to the company’s ground pad in Florida. Moreover, if all goes as currently scheduled, SpaceX will end the year with 20 launches, nearly all at Cape Canaveral.
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.