139 seconds into flight on June 28th, 2015, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket experienced an “anomaly” in its upper stage and disintegrated off the coast of Florida. Lost among the billowing clouds of debris that marked the rocket’s demise were a new docking adapter for the International Space Station (ISS), a load of scientific experiments, cargo and provisions for the ISS crew, and, perhaps most significantly, SpaceX’s much-touted flawless launch record. And, for the enthusiastic community of “New Space” and commercial spaceflight advocates watching the live video stream of the accident, there likely arose concerns over the future of the commercial space industry. With many in the space community putting their hope in SpaceX to innovate the launch market and drive down costs, this loss of mission was a sobering reminder that space is difficult and that no company, regardless of its prestige or image, is infallible. So what does this failure mean for commercial spaceflight in general?
Probably nothing. As policy analysts, space insiders, and industry experts have pointed out again and again since the accident, this loss of mission is likely nothing more than a bump in the road (albeit a considerable one) for SpaceX and, by extension, for commercial space. Yet the context and circumstances of this failure are important in the broader picture of the developing commercial space industry and are therefore worth discussing. After all, while this accident may not be a turning point in the path toward the commercialization of space, it will nonetheless be a historical footnote of significance.
First, to frame this discussion, a brief review of commercial spaceflight is prudent.
A Background on Commercial Space:
Lost among many supporters of SpaceX and other upstart space companies is the fact that commercial spaceflight is hardly new. Long-established organizations such as United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and the European Airbus-run Arianespace, have, along with commercial launches by national space programs, held a near-monopoly on the commercial space market for decades. Referred to in the space community as “Old Space,” these companies have traditionally been the providers of launches for defense, private, and sometimes scientific customers. Considering the cost and complexity of space technology, it was until recently exceedingly difficult for companies that didn’t have prior experience in the space industry through public contracts with NASA or which weren’t established aerospace players to enter the trade. These “Old Space” companies, although having great records of reliability by virtue of their long experience, have been frequently criticized for a lack of technological innovation; many designs for the commercial rocket fleet are decades old. As a result, prices for payloads into space have remained high. As routinely pointed out by advocates of private space travel, tourism, and commerce, this represents a prohibitive environment for the development of space.
Enter “New Space,” the recent generation of companies dedicated to developing launch and spacecraft capabilities. Over the past two decades, private investment and private and government-funded initiatives – such as the X-Prizes, which in 2004 enabled the first private suborbital flight – have helped upstart companies obtain the financial wherewithal to develop the technologies and infrastructure necessary for successful commercial ventures into space. With the proliferation of new launch providers and the opening of the commercial space market, some new companies have begun earnestly exploring the possibilities for commercial space mining, for suborbital and orbital tourism, for private Moon landings, and for orbital hotels and outposts. Meanwhile, close technical and financial collaboration between NASA and the commercial space industry through the Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo Program have catalyzed the remarkable growth in capabilities and market participation for companies such as SpaceX and Orbital ATK.
Indeed, the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program may be one of the single most important factors in the recent development of the commercial space industry, and represents an important change in policy direction and calculation for NASA. Begun in the 2000s, the program has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to numerous American space companies for the development of human spaceflight technologies and concepts. Since 2012, some of the companies awarded contracts with NASA through this program, such as SpaceX and Orbital ATK, have been providing private cargo launches to the International Space Station; the rocket that SpaceX just lost was on such a mission – SpaceX’s 7th commercial resupply mission to the International Station. Beginning in 2017, SpaceX and Boeing, another contract-awardee through the program, will be conducting launches of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station using their privately-developed, human-rated spacecraft.
The paradigm shift that the commercial program represents is borne largely from NASA’s shifting of priorities and lacking in capabilities. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has been without a spacecraft capable of shuttling cargo and supplies to the ISS; American astronauts have been forced to fly upon Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get into space, often at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per seat. While the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft currently under development are capable of such missions, they are designed to be beyond-Earth-orbit vehicles; their use for the purposes of logistical support and crew rotation to the ISS and in low-Earth-orbit would be highly inefficient. Thus, by investing in private companies to provide these services through the commercial program, NASA is not only divesting from Russia at a time of significant geopolitical tensions, but is enabled to focus on its mission of space exploration and scientific discovery. Meanwhile, both the “Old Space” and “New Space” companies involved in the space industry have benefited enormously from the financial supported offered through contracts with NASA for the commercial program; indeed, for some such as SpaceX, these contracts have been vital in order to become established in the industry.
The June 28th launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket – termed CRS-7, the 7th commercial resupply mission SpaceX was to carry out per its contractual obligations with NASA – was the result of years of policy calculation, funding, and support by NASA for the commercial space industry. It represented the continual progress and development of the industry toward greater capabilities, an increased role in the American space program, and an expansion of the commercial space market. For many of those who had tuned in to watch the launch on live stream, hopes were high that the mission would demonstrate the payoffs and benefits of the commercial program and the involvement of private industry in space. But, as June 28th amply demonstrated, sometimes rockets blow up.
An Inconvenient Time for Failure
The CRS-7 failure couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time for SpaceX and advocates of commercial space. It followed the October, 2014 explosion of Orbital’s Antares rocket, another commercial resupply launch that resulted in a complete loss of mission. Coupled with the loss of a Russian resupply spacecraft in April, some have had well-intentioned (if misplaced) fears that the astronauts aboard the International Space Station will run out of supplies. Meanwhile, in the policy world, funding for commercial spaceflight has recently been under the scope, with budget cuts proposed that could significantly hamper the commercial program. The consecutive failure of two of the program’s main contractors provides considerable ammunition for policymakers opposed to the program, and likely has given rise to doubt and concern about the effectiveness of NASA’s commercial crew and cargo policy.
SpaceX’s failure has also come at a time of growing, and heated, market competition between the company and the “Old Space” contingent of the space industry. After a lengthy battle with industry giants and the U.S. government, SpaceX was awarded Air Force certification to launch the United States’ most critical military spacecraft, breaking the monopoly held by ULA on that lucrative, potentially multibillion-dollar market. In large part, SpaceX was awarded the certification by virtue of its then near-flawless launch record, a necessary prerequisite for military launches of crucial importance. As the competition between ULA and SpaceX intensifies, ULA has pointed to its highly reliable launch record (only 1 launch out of nearly 4 dozen has been flawed, and even then did not result in complete mission failure) as the value the company holds over the more innovative, cheaper launches offered by SpaceX and other “New Space” companies; indeed, the bulk of ULA’s market rhetoric has been that reliability trumps pricing. With SpaceX having a record of 18 successful consecutive launches prior to the CRS-7 failure while still seeking innovative technologies to drive down prices, ULA’s arguments carried marginal weight at best. Now, such arguments have considerable merit.
Also of significance is that, in part because of SpaceX’s innovative approach to spaceflight and in part because of the bombastic rhetoric of its tech-billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk, the company has been subject to an unusual amount of media exposure and a considerable base of popular enthusiasm. This has especially been the case during the testing of the Falcon 9’s reusability capabilities, which SpaceX had sought to perfect during the CRS-7 launch. While this benefits SpaceX during times of success, it has also made it liable to increased scrutiny during times of failure. For a company that thrives on its image and relies upon the perceptions of its supporters and customers in order to compete with the industry’s more established players, heightened scrutiny during this trying time may jeopardize the integrity of that image.
There is then the issue of delays, inevitable and indeed necessary following any failure involving a launch vehicle. While SpaceX will spend this time figuring out what issues led to the rocket failure, resolving latent problems with its launch technology, and reassuring NASA, Congress, and its customers about the value of their product, the fact remains that the company is a launch provider – so long as rockets aren’t going up, money isn’t coming in. This delay not only complicates the cadence of SpaceX’s launches, which the company must keep high so as to prove and perfect their reusability technology and keep launch prices low, but, critically, harms the customer as well; so long as a company’s satellite isn’t flying, that company is yet to be making money on it. As delays persist and the wait time for customers to have their products launched extends, consumer confidence in SpaceX is bound to suffer. Nearly as critical is that this delay harms SpaceX’s bids for government and commercial launches; until SpaceX can demonstrate its value through a return-to-flight, both private and public customers may look elsewhere for a more expedited launch time-frame.
As such, SpaceX’s recently failure has considerably clouded its competition with ULA for launch contracts, which, until June 28th, had given encouragement to spaceflight enthusiasts that the commercial space industry was becoming more open to market competition – and, in turn, to driving down prices and innovating spaceflight technology.
Despite it all, Encouraging Signs
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 exploding over the coast of Florida came at an inconvenient time for commercial spaceflight and, at face value, bodes poorly for the company. Yet, despite it all, there have since been encouraging signs about the future of the industry. For all the aforementioned areas where SpaceX’s failure could pose significant problems, there have been reassurances that it is little more than a bump in the road. By and large, industry experts and policy makers recognize that space is hard, that rockets (which are themselves powered by little more than controlled explosions) can be destroyed by the most marginal mistakes, and that accidents shouldn’t preclude the continued development of the commercial space industry.
As the battle over commercial crew and cargo funding continues in the policy world, a number of high-profile individuals have come out in support of the program and SpaceX, even despite the recent failure. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who chairs the committee responsible for setting NASA policy, expressed his confidence that SpaceX will rebound from its recent failure and that the accident should have no impact on the current direction of the Commercial Crew and Cargo programs. Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Forces Committee, expressed similar support for SpaceX despite the failure. Meanwhile, Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, has lent her support (albeit so far unsuccessfully) for restoring the commercial program’s funding back to appropriate levels. While the explosion of SpaceX’s rocket during a NASA-contracted resupply mission surely does not provide support for the policymakers attempting to sustain the program, it nonetheless appears to have had a negligible effect upon the perceptions of its top-level supporters.
Meanwhile, the Air Force has announced that it will stay the course with SpaceX, allowing the company to remain in competition with ULA for lucrative military launches despite the recent mishap. Both companies are expected to place bids in the coming months for the launch of GPS-3 navigational satellites, and the Air Force has made clear that it will not amend or otherwise alter its planned timeline for competition between the companies. As a reflection of good faith between SpaceX and the Air Force, Air Force specialists and analysts have been invited to participate in the accident review investigating the causes of CRS-7’s failure.
Also encouraging is that, despite the launch failure and despite SpaceX having a contract backlog of nearly 50 launches which will undoubtedly be pushed back further by delays, many of the company’s customers have come out with statements demonstrating their continuing support and loyalty. Equally encouraging is that, while a delay is to be expected before the return-to-flight of the Falcon 9, SpaceX has stated its hopes that such a delay won’t extend beyond a few months. SpaceX may be on track to launch CRS-8, another ISS resupply mission, in September; if not, the company at least expects a return-to-flight by the end of 2015.
What’s it Mean for Commercial Spaceflight?
For all of the areas of concern that have been exacerbated by the failure of CRS-7, there have been equally encouraging signs from important stakeholders in the commercial space that the accident won’t deter or undermine the continued development of the industry. Yet this by no means suggests that the explosion was a trivial or passing event, that there won’t be any market and industry ramifications, and that SpaceX hasn’t lost a considerable portion of the momentum and industry clout that had carried it into CRS-7. Events such as these are moments for reflection and recalculation – and for good reason. While the evolution of the commercial spaceflight industry and commercial cargo program will emerge and continue from the failure of CRS-7 rather unscathed, such will likely not be the case should these accidents continue to happen.
So what does SpaceX’s failure mean for commercial spaceflight?
For one, much of the perceived momentum carrying the commercial space industry, and especially SpaceX, forward has evaporated among the clouds of debris raining down upon Florida’s coast. SpaceX had, until this moment, been seen by many as a promising company of rigorous standards and innovative practices; for some, it was the company that held the promise of carrying the private individual into space. While the failure of CRS-7 has not completely tarnished SpaceX’s image or reputation, it has brought its legions of supporters back to the reality that space is difficult and that no company, regardless of rhetoric or promises, will always deliver. How this diminishing of enthusiasm and shifting of perceptions will manifest itself in the market remains to be seen, but it should be expected that ULA and other players in the industry will be better poised to combat and stave off the challenge that SpaceX represents. While SpaceX’s current customers have reaffirmed their loyalty for the company, it should not be immediately expected that future or potential customers will share the same level of support. At the least, the promise of “New Space” is, through events such as this, beginning to dim.
To that end, SpaceX will struggle with its continuing efforts toward innovating the launch industry and driving down market prices so long as delays continue. The company has relied upon commercial launches to test its reusability systems; such launches, which have recently employed the Falcon 9’s booster-return systems, were simultaneously market ventures and technological demonstrations. Until launches start again, SpaceX will be incapable of proving the capabilities of its innovative systems; until those capabilities are proven, or until other companies take up the goal of technological innovation, the commercial launch market will likely remain generally stagnant. As such, prices for space will likely remain high as well. Related, the costs to SpaceX in ensuring that the failure which destroyed CRS-7 doesn’t happen again will likely drive up the price of its launch services. As the case of ULA has demonstrated, ensuring flawless launch reliability will necessarily make those launches more expensive. SpaceX will, moving forward, need to strike a balance between guaranteeing the reliability of its systems while also ensuring that its reputation as a low-cost launch provider is maintained and sustained; doing so will be a difficult, though perhaps not impossible, task.
Yet the failure of SpaceX’s CRS-7, like the failure of Orbital’s Antares rocket last October, will not hamper the continuation of the commercial crew and cargo program. Despite tensions over its funding within the political establishment, the commercial program represents an important and positive new direction for NASA and, by extension, American spaceflight – indeed, one which is necessary considering the current capabilities and priorities of the American space program. It enjoys high-level support within the industry and space establishment, a reflection of the perceived past value and future successes of the policy. So long as the commercial program continues, as it will, the commercial space industry will enjoy the benefits that come with close collaboration, technical support, and, most importantly, financial investment from NASA. These benefits will expand the capabilities and capacities of commercial space players, enabling them to serve a wider variety of customers. From this will come the continuing development of outer space by commercial actors, including SpaceX. And from this continuing development will come an increased desire and need for access to space, which will catalyze even further growth within the industry.
Space is hard, and no company, even SpaceX, gets it right every single time. While the explosion of CRS-7 has opened room for much concern over the future of the industry, the company, and the commercial program, all signs point to the event being of negligible lasting significance. The commercial space industry has experienced a temporary setback, one of some importance, but not one that will debilitate it moving forward. As many space and industry insiders understand, and as many of the spaceflight enthusiasts disenchanted by the CRS-7 mission should recognize, the prevailing, and perhaps most realistic, motto for humanity’s foray into space is “per aspera ad astra” – “through hardships, to the stars.”