SpaceX Falcon 9 failure is a setback to the private space industry

By Steve Brachmann
July 2, 2015

 SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1. Via Wikimedia Commons


SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1. Via Wikimedia Commons

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, more commonly known as SpaceX, manufactures aerospace equipment and provides space delivery services. To a large extent, the company has picked up from where NASA dropped off, so to speak, when the American space exploration agency officially shuttered its Space Shuttle program in August 2011. SpaceX has achieved some notable firsts in private space exploration, becoming the first private company to return a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit as well as the first to dock a spacecraft at the International Space Station. Two visits to the International Space Station (ISS) by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle in 2012 helped the company earn contracts from the American government for future hardware deliveries and led many to believe that NASA astronauts would fly aboard SpaceX craft before too long.

On the morning of Sunday, June 28th, both SpaceX and NASA suffered a serious setback when the unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 craft exploded, rendering its mission to deliver supplies and hardware to ISS a complete failure. Excessive pressure building up in a liquid oxygen tank of one of the craft’s upper stages caused the space launcher to break up shortly after leaving Cape Canaveral, FL. Air Force safety officers gave the command for the SpaceX Falcon 9 to self-destruct, largely so that fuel reserves could be burnt off and not dropped into the ocean.

This is the first major blemish on SpaceX’s launch record, which had been nearly perfect save for some unsuccessful launches of the company’s Falcon 1 craft nearly a decade ago. SpaceX has delayed all flights until it discovers the root cause of this malfunction, holding up contracts from government, scientific research and corporate clients who have already signed $7 billion worth of contracts with SpaceX. Lengthy delays could make it difficult for SpaceX to reach its goal of sending NASA astronauts into space by the year 2017.

SpaceX might be a private company but a lot of the cost of this particular failure sits on the shoulders of the American taxpayer. The lost mission was supposed to be the seventh of 15 launches of SpaceX craft for NASA under a contract that nets Musk’s company more than $2 billion. NASA lost supplies meant for astronauts on the ISS, although there are other launches occurring internationally over the next few months and there are reports that ISS is well provisioned through October. Here on IPWatchdog, we’ve written previously about Elon Musk’s seemingly innate ability to earn billions of government funding for his various private business ventures.

pintle injectorWe’ve also covered the disparaging remarks which have been made by Musk about the U.S. patent system and patents in general. When he made the decision to open source patents held by Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA), Musk commented in a widely read blog post that he has avoided patents whenever possible after leaving an early venture, web software company Zip2, in 1999. We’ve already pointed out that Tesla continues to file patent applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which seriously undercuts Musk’s remarks; he obviously hasn’t been avoiding patents all that well. Using the patent portfolio analysis tools available through Innography, we do notice that SpaceX only has one active patent, U.S. Patent No. 7503511, titled Pintle Injector Tip with Active Cooling. The patent claims a pintle injector tip for use in liquid rocket engines that has multiple chambers and apertures for mixing liquid propellants. The chambers have different wall thicknesses designed so that the first liquid cools the non-ablative tip face after exiting a plurality of apertures. This innovation in pintle injector tips is optimal for use in reusable rockets, according to the patent’s background section.

Despite the concerns raised by the recent Falcon 9 launch failure, many are still confident that Elon Musk’s private space venture and NASA’s decision to rely on private firms for space missions are sound ideas. The rapid clip at which SpaceX has been developing aerospace technologies has prompted major changes in production at the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing which is a major Pentagon supplier, as well as Mitsubishi Corp. (TYO:8058) and Airbus Group (EPA:AIR). SpaceX also provides the American government with a domestic option for sending NASA missions into orbit, otherwise it would have to rely on Russia’s Soyuz rocket missions.

Elon Musk and SpaceX have some far-reaching ambitions for sending human beings into space and Musk has already stated that he will reveal some of his concepts for the colonization of Mars by the end of this year. The company is operating on a timeline of putting a person on Mars by the year 2026, about a decade before NASA feels that it will be ready to do so itself.

It’s more likely that consumers will begin to benefit from a different SpaceX program much sooner, one that aims to put satellites into orbit which can connect rural and isolated regions to the Internet. Much of this is being funded by a $1 billion investment made by Google and Fidelity Investments in SpaceX this January, giving Google and Fidelity just less than 10 percent ownership in SpaceX. Plans to bring satellite-based Internet to Redmond, WA, Fremont, CA, and Hawthorne, CA, can be seen in this SpaceX filing for an experimental radio service submitted to the Federal Communications Commission.

Others in the private space industry are trying to develop satellites that can compete with the Internet service provided by SpaceX’s nascent system. French aircraft developer Airbus has announced a partnership with Richard Branson’s OneWeb global information project to design and manufacture 900 satellites which could bring Internet connectivity to rural areas as early as 2018. Airbus is also developing a technology called Adeline which aims to enable the safe return of launch equipment for reuse, something which SpaceX has been trying to achieve with the Falcon 9. Unlike SpaceX, which plans on recovering the entirety of its craft, the Adeline system devised by Airbus would still require a new fuel tank for each launch.

The private space industry is still a very young field as of yet and growing pains are bound to be felt. It bears keeping in mind that two of the five aircraft used in NASA’s Space Shuttle program, as well as their NASA crew members, are no longer with us but space exploration has continued despite those tragedies. Perhaps the most understated response on the incident came from NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, currently stationed on the ISS, who posted the words “Space is hard” on Twitter following the Falcon 9 explosion. NASA had already anticipated the loss of some commercial cargo vehicles after privatizing the space program, according to comments made after the Falcon 9 event by William Gerstenmaier, an associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate. There are those who feel that we’ve progressed beyond the point where we can accept such a defeatist attitude towards these debacles, especially given the fact that three ISS resupply missions have failed in the past year. The next resupply mission for the ISS will be launched on July 3rd by the Russian government from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in the Kazakh desert steppe.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

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