SpaceX assessing launch pad damage after explosion

A video of the blast posted to YouTube.YOUTUBE
A still image from video shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploding at its launch site on Sept 1, 2016.
A still image from video shows the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploding at its launch site on Sept 1, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (REUTERS) - Damage to a launch pad from the explosion of a SpaceX rocket on Thursday (Sept 1) may send the private space services company run by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk scrambling to finish a second Florida launch site, officials said on Friday (Sept 2).

The Federal Aviation Administration has sent seven people to Florida to supervise investigation of the disaster, said FAA spokesman Hank Price. The agency, which oversees US commercial rocket launches, requires that SpaceX's flights be suspended pending results of the probe.

Any sign of rocket malfunction could require changes throughout the SpaceX fleet. After a SpaceX disaster in June 2015, the programme was paused for six months while defective brackets were replaced in Falcon 9 rockets.

Damage to SpaceX's Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is still being assessed, but repairs are likely and may force SpaceX to find another place to blast off.

"There's going to be so much damage," said a former Nasa official who heard the blast from his home and who asked not to be named. "I'm sure they burned up a lot of communications lines, data lines, all the stuff that feeds into the (rocket) hold-down system."

Pictures of the launch site after the explosion showed structural damage as well. The top portion of a launch pad tower, which is used to raise the rocket and support it vertically, had canted over.

The US Air Force said in a statement that damage appeared to be contained within SpaceX's launch complex.

The cause of the accident, which destroyed a US$200 million (S$270 million) communications satellite, is under investigation. Meanwhile, more than 70 missions aboard Falcon rockets, worth more than US$10 billion, are on hold.

If the launch pad faces lengthy repairs, SpaceX could opt to use a second Florida site, called 39A, which is located a few miles north at Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre and was used for space shuttle missions.

"Pad 39A is definitely a card on the table," Frank DiBello, president of the Space Florida economic development agency said.

SpaceX had planned to use the pad for the first time later this year for a test flight of its new Falcon Heavy rocket.

Nasa spokesman Michael Curie said in an e-mail that the site could be used for commercial and government flights, and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell in a May conference said one customer, SES of Luxembourg, had expressed interest in flying from the historic launch pad.

SpaceX was trying to see if it could prepare the site for SES' two satellites scheduled to fly this year, she said.

In an e-mail, SES said it "would be happy to launch from Pad 39A."

Other customers slated for Falcon 9 launches from Florida in 2016 are EchoStar of Englewood, Colorado, South Korea's KT Sat and Nasa. In addition, SpaceX has contracts to fly satellites for Iridium Communications, Taiwan's National Space Organisation and Seattle-based Spaceflight from its West Coast launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The last time a launch pad sustained heavy damage was in October 2014 when an Orbital ATK Antares rocket exploded seconds after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia. The explosion sent debris falling back onto the launch site. The pad is due to return to service this month after US$15 million worth of repairs.

The FAA had required SpaceX buy US$12 million in liability insurance and US$13 million policy to cover any damage to government property during pre-launch activities, according to a Commercial Space Transportation Licence the FAA issued to SpaceX in January 2016 for six commercial satellite launches in Florida.

SpaceX did not immediately say what additional insurance it has, if any, to cover damage to its own equipment.

United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing that flies its Atlas rockets at a pad next to SpaceX's, said on Friday it had inspected its facility and found no damage or concerns.

SpaceX's next launch had been scheduled for mid-September from California. Its next flight from Florida was targeted for October.

That California flight could go ahead as soon as the rocket is deemed ready, but the pad cannot substitute for the one in Florida. SpaceX uses Vandenberg to launch satellites requiring polar orbits, while Florida is better situated for satellites heading into equatorial orbits and for cargo ships flying to the International Space Station for Nasa.