Can SpaceX Recover From Its Explosive Stumble?

We'll soon find out -- perhaps as soon as tomorrow.

Sep 5, 2014 at 10:57AM

Scratch one test rocket for SpaceX.

On August 22, against the backdrop of a clear blue Texas sky, a Falcon 9R Dev 1 "reusable" test rocket blasted off from its launch pad in McGregor, Texas. It flew 17-seconds into the air -- then blew to smithereens.

Falcon
"Houston? We need another Falcon 9R." (Falcon 9 rocket at liftoff). Photo: SpaceX.

Mind you, this was what was supposed to happen -- sort of. SpaceX blames a "blocked sensor port" for triggering an automatic self-destruct system aboard the test rocket, preventing it from flying off to somewhere it wasn't supposed to go. But intentional or not, the loss of the Falcon 9R does appear to represent a setback for SpaceX. 

"Rockets are tricky"
Commenting on the mishap in a tweet, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk laconically observed that "rockets are tricky," exhibiting little sign of disappointment with the failure. But just to be safe and to make 100% certain that everything is working right, SpaceX still decided to scrub a planned launch of an AsiaSat 6 commercial satellite, which had been scheduled to take place the Tuesday following the mishap. SpaceX now intends to try again either tomorrow or Sunday.

SpaceX spokesman Garrett Reisman told the SpaceflightNow website that, because the Falcon 9 v.1.1 to be used in the upcoming commercial satellite launch "has multiple sensors in its algorithm that it uses... if the same failure occurred on the Falcon 9 it would not affect the mission in any way" as with the experimental Falcon 9R. Subsequently quoted on NASASpaceFlight.com, Reisman added that the "single point failure that existed on [the glitchy Falcon 9R] does not exist on the Falcon 9" that will be used to launch AsiaSat 6. (Falcon 9's are ordinarily built as two-stage, nine-engine rockets. The experimental Falcon 9R, which SpaceX is using to test the ability of these rockets to return to Earth safely for use, was single-staged, powered by only three of SpaceX's Merlin engines, and equipped with a prototype landing gear system).

What's more, according to Reisman, the fact that SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has successfully lifted payloads into space with only eight of its nine rockets operational shows that a sensor glitch shutting down any one engine might not result in mission failure. Indeed, even if two engines fail simultaneously, the rocket could theoretically continue to lift itself into orbit.

We'll soon find out if he's right to be so confident -- perhaps as early as tonight.

What it means to investors
Tonight -- or technically tomorrow -- SpaceX could make a second attempt to loft AsiaSat 6 into orbit sometime between 12:50 am and 4:04 am Texas-time. If complications intervene, SpaceX still has the option of trying for a September 7 launch Sunday, during the same time window.

Assuming all goes well this weekend, the quick turnaround from last month's failure will give SpaceX a chance to remind investors that it's still a contender to unseat incumbents Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) from their dominant position in the space launch market. But that still leaves the issue of the Falcon 9R failure that raised the question of SpaceX's reliability in the first place. What does that mean to investors?

Actually, it may not mean very much. Remember: Falcon 9R is an experiment. It's not the same as SpaceX's proven commercial Falcon 9 platform, which has flown successfully 11 times already on both commercial satellite launches, and International Space Station resupply missions.

Launching satellites aboard disposable Falcon 9 rockets, SpaceX says it's able to charge prices as much as $280 million cheaper than what Boeing and Lockheed charge for use of their own disposable rockets. Sure, the Falcon 9R project is SpaceX's attempt to prove that it can build a reusable launch rocket, and drive down prices on space launch even more dramatically. But even if Falcon 9R were never to succeed, SpaceX's launches would still be cheaper than existing options.

The upshot
The Falcon 9R may be based on the Falcon 9, and the two rockets may use common parts, but the vehicles are not identical. The crucial difference: If an accident is going to happen on any Falcon 9-derived rocket, SpaceX (and its customers) would much rather have that accident happen on the test-bed version. That's its purpose after all -- to test new things, find out whether they work, and if they don't work, find that out in time to fix the problem before it costs some customer his satellite.

As Johnny Cash once said: "You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space."

"Space." How appropriate.

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Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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