The failure of a SpaceX mission to resupply the International Space Station will have serious implications not only for the company's civilian and commercial business, but also its ambitions to crack into the military market.
The explosion of the company's Falcon 9 on June 28 over Cape Canaveral, Florida -- more than two minutes into flight -- came just a month after it was certified by the U.S. Air Force to carry military satellites.
The certification ended a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. monopoly in the defense market by allowing SpaceX's Falcon 9 to launch national-security payloads under the Air Force's Evolved Expendable launch Vehicle program. SpaceX planned to begin competing for military missions this month, when the Air Force was expected to release a request for proposals to launch a GPS III satellite.
Air Force's officials hailed the approval as a milestone that would help to control rising launch costs. But given yesterday's mishap, critics are likely to argue the decision was premature. What's more, the certification process that took two years, cost more than $60 million and involved 150 people may not be over.
Under a June 2013 Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between SpaceX and the Air Force, the company had to perform at least three successful flights of a common launch vehicle configuration to be considered for launching critical and high-cost national-security payloads.
While SpaceX completed enough launches of the latest version of the Falcon 9, a two-stage medium-lift booster known as version 1.1, to meet that requirement, it's unclear how yesterday's failure will impact its certification status. A request for comment from Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center wasn't immediately returned.
Meanwhile, the cause of the Falcon 9 failure is still under investigation. Elon Musk, the billionaire head of SpaceX, said the problem occurred shortly before first-stage separation.
In tweets after the accident, he wrote, "There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause." Several hours later, he followed that with, "Cause still unknown after several thousand engineering-hours of review. Now parsing data with a hex editor to recover final milliseconds."
The Falcon 9 had completed seven previously successful missions delivering food, water and supplies to the International Space Station. The booster will now be grounded for "a number of months or so," while an investigation into the explosion takes place, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said during a news conference.
Gen. John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, in April at the Space Symposium, has warned that failures will disrupt how the service will buy rocket launches from competitive providers.
"If something goes wrong, what do you have to do to return to fly in this kind of environment and who makes that decision?" he said at the time. "Because I'm not going to stand up and put a billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket I don't know is going to work. And if that's the case, then that company who now is on this very busy launch schedule is now down. How do they stay in business with the other competitor launching and launching and launching? That's a fundamental issue."
United Launch Alliance LLC, the Lockheed-Boeing joint venture and sole supplier of the EELV program, has attracted publicity over the past year for relying on a Russian engine, RD-180, to power its Atlas family of rockets. But the technology -- and additional mission-assurance funding -- has helped the firm achieve 96 successful launches since its formation in 2006.
As tough as this looks for the military, NASA has it far worse. This was the third time a cargo resupply mission to the space station failed since last fall, when an Orbital-ATK Antares rocket that relied on a Soviet-era first-stage engine exploded at Wallops Island, Virginia. Ironically, the company plans to retrofit the booster with the newer Russian engine, RD-181, and return to flight by the end of the year.