Access Update #143 7/2/15
copyright 2015 by Space Access Society
Sunday's Commercial Cargo Mission Loss
Sunday's (6/28/15) SpaceX cargo resupply launch to Station failed, breaking up a little over two minutes into the flight. (More here and here.) This was SpaceX's eighth such flight; their initial test mission then six commercial-contract cargo flights had essentially gone as planned. This was SpaceX's nineteenth launch of the Falcon 9 booster; the first eighteen F9 launches all reached orbit successfully.
Our Take On Things
This is a setback for SpaceX, but not an unprecedented one. Typical expendable launch vehicle programs suffer a mission loss or two early on. Expendable space launcher programs overall tend to lose a few percent of missions - the very best approach one percent.
This is in large part because every launch of an expendable booster is by definition a first test flight of a complex high-performance aerospace vehicle, with no option to land and fix anything that slipped by QC and ground tests.
We expect SpaceX will sort out what happened, fix it, and resume reliable operations relatively quickly - likely within months, possibly within weeks if the fix turns out to be simple and definitive.
It turns out the practical effect on International Space Station operations will probably be manageable, as there are two other cargo launches (Russia's Progress and Japan's HTV) due before Station's current four-month supply reserve runs out. There is also a third (Orbital-ATK's first post-accident Cygnus launch) that NASA is looking at moving forward from its current December window if there's a need. One more such loss anytime soon though, and things may get difficult.
This Friday's Progress launch (currently scheduled for 12:55 am EDT 7/3/15 - that's Thursday night for US Central time zone & westward) (successful so far six hours into its two-day flight to Station, as of early Friday) will of course be watched closely. The last Progress attempt, in April, using a new upgraded Soyuz booster, failed, but this flight is reverting to the previous version booster.
The loss of equipment on Sunday's SpaceX flight is also a setback for Station science efforts, especially for those experimenters making a second attempt to fly their payloads after losing their first last fall on last October's Orbital-ATK cargo mission failure. On the whole though this will delay rather than derail useful ISS science results. (Our profound sympathy to any who may for whatever reason not get another chance to fly their experiments.)
The main practical effect on the Commercial Crew program (SpaceX is one of the two contractors; their plan includes the current Falcon 9 booster plus a major "Dragon 2" upgrade of the current Dragon cargo capsule) is likely to be long-term improvement in Falcon 9's reliability, as whatever went wrong Sunday is thoroughly dealt with. (It's also worth noting that SpaceX's upcoming in-flight Dragon 2 Launch Abort System test is designed to get a crew capsule away safely under exactly this sort of circumstance.)
The business/financial impact of this will be noticeable, but on the whole survivable. SpaceX of course doesn't get paid** for Commercial Cargo missions that don't arrive, and revenue for other launches they have booked will presumably be delayed to the extent the launches themselves are delayed. The company however seems currently quite well-financed and we don't expect major problems there.
**CORRECTION - Alert readers have pointed out that the current round of Commercial Resupply Service contracts allow progress payments for each mission before actual launch. Payment details of SpaceX's CRS contract aren't public, but it's reasonable to assume it's similar to Orbital-ATK's where the majority for each mission is paid before launch. Both contractors, however, do have a fixed total of cargo mass they must deliver over the course of their current CRS contracts at a fixed price, and thus (as best we can tell) will have to cover any additional expenses involved in meeting those totals out of their own pockets.
SpaceX's backlog of several dozen launch customers will no doubt have their plans affected by whatever additional delays happen, but delay is endemic in the launch business and we'd expect provisions for it to have been made by most.
The engineering, production, and launch operations teams at SpaceX are obviously under considerable pressure to understand this failure then fix it both definitively and quickly. We wish them the best in balancing these objectives successfully.
Finally, the political effect on Commercial Crew, and on Defense launch competition, is less predictable. Partisans in those matters have already very predictably begun positioning themselves to claim the incident supports their preferred policies, but both of those political questions were already volatile. We think it's too soon to say with any certainty what effect this launch failure will have on either.
Our position on both, for what it's worth, is that SpaceX's bad day only reinforces the case for developing and keeping multiple redundant affordable capabilities to fly high national priority missions.
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