For SpaceX, it's back to square one -- or more precisely, square zero.
A little over three weeks ago, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket undergoing pre-launch testing at Cape Canaveral exploded on its launch pad. Along with the rocket, and an on-board Israeli satellite, the explosion sent SpaceX's year-long streak of successful launches up in smoke, resetting it to zero. Now the question is:
How long will it take SpaceX to return to space? How long to get back to square one?
A competitor chimes in
Last week, a controversial headline from Reuters implied that United Launch Alliance (ULA) CEO Tory Bruno had predicted SpaceX would be out of commission for between nine and 12 months.
Such an apparent assertion from a SpaceX rival (ULA is a joint venture between Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), two of the biggest names in spaceflight and two of SpaceX's biggest competitors), naturally raised eyebrows. But reaching out to ULA, I was able to confirm that Bruno wasn't predicting such a long delay for SpaceX in particular -- or even necessarily.
Rather, Bruno referred to the results of an internal ULA study surveying "the entire history of rocket failures dating back decades," which suggested nine to 12 months was the norm for any space company recovering from a mishap. So, what does history tell us about this?
A tale of two space explosions
No Boeing or Lockheed rockets have blown up in ULA's past 111 launch attempts. Rival Arianespace, the Airbus (NASDAQOTH:EADSY) subsidiary, boasts a streak nearly as long: 73 successful flights by its Ariane 5 launch vehicle, and a 74-flight streak by the Ariane 4 before it. But there are a couple of recent examples to guide us.
Orbital ATK and Antares
Take Orbital ATK (NYSE:OA), for example. On October 28, 2014, an Orbital ATK Antares launch vehicle carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded over Wallops Island in Virginia, mere moments after liftoff. It took more than 13 months for Orbital to return to space (on December 6, 2015). Even then, it did so not on its own rocket -- but on a Lockheed Martin Atlas V.
13 months -- that's already past the high mark on ULA's timeline for rocket companies recovering from a setback. What's more, Orbital's efforts to return to space on its own rockets (to be powered by upgraded RD-181 engines from Russia) seem to be taking longer than expected. The revamped Antares has yet to make an operational flight, and its planned launch in August was postponed until later this month -- nearly two full years after the explosion at Wallops.
SpaceX and the Falcon 9
SpaceX itself provides our second example. Prior to this month's explosion, SpaceX had successfully launched nine rockets in 12 months without incident. Moreover, its first launch of the streak featured a history-making re-landing of the launched rocket on Earth.
But what preceded that streak?
On June 28, 2015, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket (like Orbital's, loaded with supplies for ISS) exploded two minutes into its flight -- the company's first failure after a previous streak of 20 successful launches. It took the company several weeks to confirm that a support strut within the rocket's second stage had failed, causing the explosion, and six months total to fix the problem and prepare Falcon 9 for its return to space.
And there you have two examples -- one high of Bruno's nine-to-12 months estimate for the average time to return to space, and one below it.
A question of financial life or death
Facing the difficult task of determining what made its rocket explode when the "engines were not on and there was no apparent heat source" is a tough nut to crack. In fact, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says this month's "anomaly" is "the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years." But tough as the task seems today, SpaceX's previous success in getting its rocket ready to fly again in record time suggests the company may "beat the odds" again.
In fact, SpaceX spokesman Dex Torricke-Barton tells me SpaceX expects "to have identified and resolved the cause of the anomaly" and "return to flight in November" -- a mere two-month turnaround time. Let's hope that's true -- because if it takes much longer, SpaceX could be in real trouble.
SpaceX isn't like United Launch Alliance, you see. Unlike ULA, it cannot depend on backing from widely diversified aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin to keep it afloat when things go awry. Unlike Ariane, it has no Airbus to fall back on.
SpaceX isn't even like Orbital ATK, a diversified military hardware supplier with a thriving business in building satellites. SpaceX launches rockets -- and that's it. Aside from that space launch, SpaceX has precious few revenue streams to fall back on.
Every minute that SpaceX must spend figuring out why its rockets are blowing up, instead of launching them, is time the company is not collecting revenue, not earning profits, and not making progress toward Elon Musk's goal of amassing enough money to finance a manned mission to Mars. So long as SpaceX is kept busy figuring out the SpaceXplosion phenomenon, there can be no relaunch of a "used rocket," and no test launch of the company's new Falcon Heavy rocket, either.
Meanwhile, SpaceX's website continues to describe the company as "profitable and cash-flow positive" -- even after two explosions and a combined seven months of inactivity over the past 15 months. The longer SpaceX remains grounded, though, the more questionable those claims will become.