"Following a nominal liftoff, Falcon 9 experienced a problem shortly before first stage shutdown, resulting in loss of mission. Preliminary analysis suggests the vehicle experienced an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank approximately 139 seconds into flight...
Our teams are reviewing data to determine root cause..."
So posted Elon Musk's SpaceX last week, in a laconic observation that could just as well read, "One of our rockets is missing, and we don't know why." The explosion took with it 4,000 pounds of vital supplies destined for International Space Station astronauts, along with one of a pair of docking stations that SpaceX was supposed to deliver to ISS for installation, enabling later docking of "space taxis" by itself and by Boeing with ISS beginning in 2017.
One week after the, um, SpaceXplosion, SpaceX still hasn't explained why one of its Falcon 9 rockets exploded two minutes into its launch. But here's what we do know.
"Space is hard"
So goes the old trope, but space does seem to be getting harder lately. As tallied by our friends at Spaceflightnow, we have now seen a total of three resupply missions to the International Space Station scuttled by exploding or off-course rockets in the past eight months. Orbital ATK lost an Antares rocket to catastrophic failure back in October, followed by a Russian Progress cargo ship going off course in April. Completing the "law of threes," SpaceX has now lost its first operational Falcon after a string of 18 successful missions.
This bad news could get even worse for SpaceX, which is currently competing against Orbital ATK, Boeing, and others to win a renewal of its multibillion-dollar contract to provide Commercial Resupply Services to ISS through 2024. The good news in this regard is that at least one of SpaceX's rivals (Orbital) has suffered a failure of its own; so at least SpaceX is not odd man out. The bad news is that Boeing's record of uninterrupted successful space launches as part of United Launch Alliance could argue strongly in favor of NASA giving at least part of the "CRS(2)" contract to Boeing.
For SpaceX, a company recently valued in excess of $10 billion despite not having a tradable stock you can buy, the risk of losing this multibillion-dollar contract could well be existential.
Guilt by association
And it gets worse. As recently as May, SpaceX appeared to be on a roll. With a record of safe space launches nearly as good -- if not as long -- as Boeing's, SpaceX won certification first from NASA, and then from the U.S. Air Force, making it officially one of the U.S. government's favorite space companies. Importantly, these twin certifications opened the door for SpaceX to compete for nearly $25 billion worth of U.S. government space launch business -- annually.
Of course, this was before one of SpaceX's rockets blew up and the company essentially shrugged and said, "We don't know what happened." Viewed side by side, we now have SpaceX and Orbital ATK recording two mission failures in their last eight months of flying, versus Boeing's record of 96 launches during the last nine years, with nary a mishap.
This contrast in records could make NASA, or the Air Force -- or both -- think twice about awarding SpaceX a full share of their future space launch work, whether SpaceX is "certified" to bid for it or not. It could even convince the U.S. Congress to lift its ban on United Launch Alliance -- of which Boeing is one half -- buying and using Russian rockets to send national security satellites into space. If that happens, a scenario that looked very real just a few months ago -- one in which SpaceX becomes the only contractor legally able to launch such satellites -- would no longer be something for Boeing to worry about.
The upshot for investors
Advantage: Boeing. Don't count it out of the space race just yet.