As the brash, stylish new kid on the block, SpaceX was sure to win its share of admirers. But last week’s launch hiccup showed that the private space operator, helmed by Elon Musk, has a few issues to work out, just like stodgy old NASA.
Don’t get me wrong: SpaceX has done unbelievably impressive things. The company’s Falcon 9 rocket has gone from its first test launch to making deliveries to the International Space Station in less than two years. SpaceX is the only private operator allowed to dock with the ISS, which, given the station’s colossal costs, says something about the faith NASA has in the California upstart. (Imagine if your dad let you park next to his $100-billion sports car.)
But space exploration is hard, no matter who you are, what your business model is, or what engineering innovations you bring to the table. (There’s a reason people use “rocket science” as shorthand for something difficult.) And the first two official SpaceX deliveries to the ISS, while successful, have each served as a reality check—a valuable reminder of the enormous complexity and high stakes of spaceflight.
During the first commercial resupply mission, in October 2012, one of the nine engines on the Falcon 9 rocket lost pressure and shut down about 80 seconds into flight. The rocket still delivered its primary payload to orbit, and SpaceX touted in a statement that “Falcon 9 did exactly what it was designed to do.” The statement went on to boast that “Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine out situation and still complete its mission. No other rocket currently flying has this ability.” But the engine failure caused the Falcon to deposit a secondary payload—a small satellite—in an unstable orbit, lower than had been planned, and the satellite quickly fell back toward Earth and burned up in the atmosphere.
The second resupply trip, which began March 1 with a clean liftoff of a Falcon 9, quickly took a turn for the worse when three of the four thruster pods on the Dragon cargo capsule failed to fire up. For a time, it looked as if the Dragon might not be able to reach its intended orbit to rendezvous with the station. By the time the problem had been corrected, six hours into flight, NASA and SpaceX had postponed by a day the Dragon’s planned arrival at the ISS. Eventually the Dragon docked successfully on March 3.
As a colleague pointed out to me this week, the two anomalies—or, more specifically, the contingency planning and on-the-fly repairs that minimized the impact of the anomalies—might actually bode well for SpaceX. It is one thing to hope for a perfect mission, and quite another to scramble to a quick recovery when something goes wrong. Taken to an extreme, such ingenuity and adaptivity are what made NASA’s salvaging of the Apollo 13 mission so impressive.
So the question, to my mind, is not whether the launch hiccups are indicative of larger engineering problems. Thus far, SpaceX has a record to be proud of. The question that keeps bothering me is whether the sunnily optimistic view that NASA and the general public have for newcomers such as SpaceX can weather the realities of a dangerous, failure-prone business, especially once the Dragon capsule is outfitted to carry astronauts and not just cargo to the ISS. The history of spaceflight is punctuated by rocket malfunctions, crashed probes, and—tragically—numerous deaths, both of astronauts and of workers and other civilians on the ground.
The private spaceflight industry has already tasted tragedy. In 2007 an explosion in California killed three people at a company called Scaled Composites who were working on engines for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. That mishap, like so many workplace accidents in the aerospace industry, has largely been forgotten. Virgin soldiers on toward its first commercial launch in the coming years, at which point public scrutiny will increase manyfold. If a mishap involves customers on a suborbital flight rather than workers on the ground, we will hear much more about the accident and its victims. And I suspect that many of the 500-plus people now lining up to fly to space will change their minds.
When NASA lost three astronauts in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967, the U.S. pushed on. There was a space race under way, and the nation’s skyward aspirations had no outlet other than NASA. Nowadays, manned space exploration ranks much lower as a national priority (look no further than the NASA budget, which during Apollo was roughly 10 times larger as a share of the nation’s total expenditures). And the goals of the human spaceflight program, at least for the near term, are much more mundane. So I have to wonder what kinds of losses the public will tolerate when the primary benefits of NASA’s exploration include staffing an orbiting space station and stimulating private companies rather than landing on the moon and winning a space race with a geopolitical foe. Similarly, I wonder what level of risk thrill-seekers will accept when weighing a suborbital spaceflight.
I wish nothing but the best for SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and the rest. But I hope their customers (a group that, in the case of SpaceX, includes U.S. taxpayers) and their boosters recognize that the road to the bright new future of commercial spaceflight, which many believe to be just years away, will likely be a rocky one. History shows us that space is a challenging, often dangerous place to operate, and it would be foolish to think that the new kid on the block will be immune to the troubles—both minor and catastrophic—that every space agency in the world has had to contend with.