Can SpaceX Recover From Its Explosive Stumble?

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.


"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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Read/Post Comments (11) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 05, 2014, at 12:06 PM, jake1730 wrote:

    I think what you are missing here was eluded to over a year ago by Gwynne Shotwell saying "We've got to tunnel one of those vehicle into the ground by trying something really hard and we haven't done that yet"

    You can simulate and test but the only true way of knowing your engineering envelope is through destructive testing and not only does SpaceX get this they have said as much! Here:

    https://www.youtube.com/all_comments?threaded=1&v=THQPND...

    Is SpaceX a good investment? Well they would be if they were public but they are not... but from a secondary investment standpoint with what I just said... Absolutely! SpaceX Knows where the boundaries are!

  • Report this Comment On September 05, 2014, at 1:59 PM, scotttilly wrote:

    Everyone need to relax its no big problem. How many rockets did NASA have blow up on them?

  • Report this Comment On September 05, 2014, at 4:50 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    Rich this would be a lot more interesting with some facts about launches and finance...AND when SpaceX might become "investable"

  • Report this Comment On September 05, 2014, at 6:41 PM, ffbj wrote:

    Elude is to escape or avoid, the word you want is allude.

  • Report this Comment On September 05, 2014, at 9:59 PM, PhillyJimi wrote:

    This article makes zero sense. SpaceX isn't a public company therefore there isn't anything to invest in.

    From what I understand SpaceX got very valuable data from the failure which will help them in the future. Thomas Edison failed over 10,000 attempts before he successfully created the light bulb.

    If SpaceX can reuse their rockets it will be a big time game changer. Of course there will be a gap/chasm before NASA and aerospace in general catches up with the reality of dramatically reduced launch costs.

  • Report this Comment On September 06, 2014, at 2:59 AM, jake1730 wrote:

    You are absolutely correct! the word would be allude...

    I tapped that out on my phone so please forgive me...

    Hopefully you got more out of my comment than my phone picking out words for me...

    Maybe you could watch the video at the link I provided and actually get something of value from my post... It tis why I put it here...

    But who knows maybe you can find some more typos... LOL ;)

    Have an Awesome weekend!

  • Report this Comment On September 06, 2014, at 3:13 AM, jake1730 wrote:

    With any successful company publicly traded or not there are the potential secondary investments that could be made!

    Such as Panasonic due to tesla's gigafactorys!

  • Report this Comment On September 06, 2014, at 4:19 AM, TheeMadCatte wrote:

    Dude.. their TEST vehicle failed.

    Test vehicles crash.. sometimes badly.. the only thing that is surprising is how many SUCCESSFUL vertical landings SpaceX did with Grasshopper and with production Falcon 9s (2 on water now).

    I would have expected them to crash a dozen times before getting it right (like so many before them).

    What they are trying Nasa hasn't even attempted.

  • Report this Comment On September 06, 2014, at 10:23 AM, BmeupTeleport wrote:

    The SpaceX Falcon 9R rocket episode is a reminiscence of yesteryears, over 50 years ago, while working on two missile ranges. Many, many missiles suffered that fate. I commend SpaceX for having the technology to destroy the rocket versus some Range Safety Officer. The worse missile disaster experienced was a Delta D, Thor missile, with a nuclear warhead on top that exploded on the launch pad, about half mile away from my radar in 1962 on Johnston Island. A big plutonium spill; I still glow in the dark!

    Those incidents have been over 50 years ago, and we are still playing with rockets. There is a better possible solution in getting objects up into space, teleportation. The general consensus today has not changed since an experience I had as an Assistant DSIF Project Engineer for Lunar Orbiter when at JPL. In a meeting, waiting for the NASA Flt Director, a new TV series was in deep discussion on the possibility of teleporting. All the scientists and engineers decided, that day, teleporting will never happen, it can only be Science Fiction. Guess what? It is still believed today.

    Teleporting objects is real and is happening in front of our eyes today, with proof. We are spending tens (maybe hundreds) billions of dollars to get to Mars, whereby developing teleportation and then teleporting persons and objects to Mars is not only safer, more reliable but also at costs under 100 million dollars; that includes the mere 5 million to develop it. With teleportation, both time and distance evaporates in space travel, everything is close to instantaneously; Orion constellation, some 800 light years is only an eye blink away!

    Warren Buffet maybe right ‘the real threat’ is not bigger and better rockets, but instead a very old aged technology that today can be re-birthed using current technology. Applications that are not computer games, nor playing with stupid social networks, but a design that brings purposeful and importance to humanity’s survival, our future and our ultimate destiny. We can start today by viewing Project Beam Me Up Teleport’s videos at http://bmeupteleport.com explaining the project, and the reasons why we are not teleporting large objects and humans today. We are not teleporting today because we don’t have the science, we are not teleporting for just one reason – scientific thinking!

    At that meeting at JPL, I still in my twenties, stood up and said, ’we will be teleporting like Star Trek in my lifetime’. They all laughed; yes, and they still are laughing. One better hope, either the project gets funded or I win the lottery, versus some other organization, country, etc. develops it first. It will be a very big change maker – it will put much of our current technology in obsolescence.

  • Report this Comment On September 06, 2014, at 12:35 PM, crscale wrote:

    SpaceX will probably not go public for a number of years, but at least some of its competitors and maybe even their vendors and customers are. This company is being disruptive in the rocket launch market and could really turn the market on its head if it is successful with re-usability. So what exactly happened to the Falcon 9R on 08/22/14--the port on one sensor apparently shut down the test vehicle's one of three engines causing the vehicle to veer off course triggering self-destruction (as a safety measure). This brings up three issues for the testbed vehicle, which its sounds like SpaceX was aware of at least two before the incident. First, the lack of multi-sensor input voting system for anomaly detection. The Falcon 9 has multiple sensor input, so no problem there, but why didn't SpaceX build the F9R with a similar system? Second, the F9R's three-engine design. The F9's 1st stage has nine (9) engines--if apparently two shut down, the rocket could probably complete its primary mission, but I don't know how many lost engines it would take to lose control. The present F9R is a test vehicle, so maybe SpaceX felt it did not need all nine (9) engines for testing. Maybe a three(3) engine design was a test in itself. Third, and for which SpaceX probably was not aware of, is the potential for the sensor of concern to become blocked. So, probably leason learned there, but boy was it costly, and not just in terms of dollars. I feel the biggest cost to SpaceX was public perception, negative, which is not helped by the poor sensational reporting this incident experienced. SpaceX's nemeses (most particular Richard Shelby (R-AL)--AL is the home of ULA's Delta IV rocket) will try to take advantage of this incident to their advantage and a loss to our country as a whole. I realize "Rockets are tricky." to quote Elon Musk, but the postive gained from failure may not be enough to overcome the negative perception realized, so it might be worth SpaceX playing it a little more safe.

  • Report this Comment On September 06, 2014, at 1:28 PM, greatnesslost wrote:

    People who know rockets understand this incident is typical. Fact is every rocket used by Space X competition had blown up more often at this stage of its development. Yes all of them. Boeing, Lockheed, ESA, Russia, China, and India's programs had more problems.

    However due to Space X reusability have a significant possibility of success rhetoric and actual lying by its competitors directly, and paid hacks,for example at Forbes, is becoming a screaming pitch.

    It isn't Falcon9R that has them fearing for their company lives: its Raptor and Raptor Super Heavy.

    If this machine flies, and is reusable, it will be game over for all of them unless they spend $25 to $30 billion collectively to compete. Consider NASA's "Exploration Class" rocket. Already they have spent $12 billion for something that is still mostly on paper except for its planned shuttle era parts. The ESA is spending $5 billion for a Falcon-9 competitor and intends to fly it at what has to be a loss. With NASA it will cost about $1.5 billion to put up to 140 tons into Low Earth Orbit. A Raptor single core, also 9 engines, will be more powerful, but 'R' variant dropping LEO tonnage to about 130 if it comes down on a barge jacked up on a sea-mount, or reef, in the Gulf of Mexico. Cost for a Raptor R mission: Under $100 million. A Raptor 3 core variant also soft landing $300 million, but putting nearly 400 tons up.

    After Raptor engines are developed the next obvious step is two, a 200,000 and 500,000 pound thrust cryogenic engines (the sizes I would choose) with ISp in the 470 range. Put these in a cluster on the upper stage of a Raptor, tonnage lifted goes over 500. Again remember Space X plans to recover upper stages as well.

    Based on past performance Space X could have raptor flying within four years. A heavy two years after, cryogenic engines some time after, but being developed within that time frame.

    Begin to get the idea? I too argue that Space X reduce its bombast a bit. When you get attention of a Congressman like Shelby who is part of a very corrupt political system in Washington the company targeted will suffer the fate of Tucker. Politicians like Shelby, and all the Democrat counterparts as well, know the American public is ignorant as they come for the most part, specially rockets. The public expects Star Trek, or Star Wars and will question if this expectation is not met.It is an easy ignorance for Musk's detractors to exploit. For political reasons, existing business support, employment losses from them, graft from the companies, and believe it or not control of the country, the Warrens, and Shelby's will snatch a huge advantage for this country away.

    Hence Brownsville Texas in my view. Where is Boca Chica? Answer, just three miles north of a very nice, flat, and perfectly suitable Mexican soil for a big rocket to launch from. Brownsville has thousands employed in the oil industry there. Specifically high pressure pumps, valves, working with alloys specific to rockets, and oil platforms, that can be adapted for soft landings. Many of these workers come from the Mexican side of the border.

    So Congress begins to Tucker Space X. Well it is a reasonably simple shuffle south three or four miles and Musk issues people like Shelby the middle finger.

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