SpaceX suffered a major setback when its Falcon 9 rocket exploded shortly after liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station back in June. The company has now announced that it expects the Falcon 9 to hit the launchpad again barely six months after the event in December. The rocket has been revamped to prevent a reoccurrence of the failure, but SpaceX is taking all possible precautions. If it had a second failure by some tragic twist of fate, that might spell the end for SpaceX’s manned mission plans.
The catastrophic failure of SpaceX’s last launch took place just a few minutes into the flight when an internal support strut in the rocket’s upper stage failed. This strut design had been flown many times before, but in this case it snapped under 2,000 pounds of force. It was rated to withstand 10,000 pounds, though. When the strut failed, the rocket’s helium pressure vessel came loose and released a burst of helium into the liquid oxygen tank. The resulting increase in pressure caused the tank to rupture and blow the rocket to bits.
SpaceX has been working to minimize the PR impact of the failure, though blowing up a few million dollars in valuable equipment and experiments isn’t something easily forgotten. The company has pointed to its emergency abort system, which is being developed for the manned version of the Dragon capsule. SpaceX says it got telemetry from the Dragon capsule after the rocket broke up, meaning that a functional abort system could have saved the lives of astronauts in such an event. The escape system, including parachutes, was not enabled during the cargo launch, though.
At this time, SpaceX is targeting six to eight weeks for another Falcon 9 launch. This will likely mean some testing before another NASA payload is placed on-board. In addition to redesigning the support struts that caused the June explosion, SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 vehicle will be capable of more thrust. This is being done in order to improve the chances of a successful first stage landing. SpaceX has tried this a few times, getting very close earlier this year. If vertical landing of the spent first stage can be perfected, that would lower launch costs substantially as the rocket could be refurbished instead of discarded.
A successful return to form is essential for SpaceX to retain its place as one of the leading private space firms. It has a contract with NASA as part of the commercial crew program to send people to the ISS aboard the Dragon v2 (above) in the next few years. Hopefully that will happen on a Falcon 9 rocket that’s safer than ever before.