A SpaceX rocket exploded at its Cape Canaveral launch pad yesterday morning, destroying the rocket and the satellite it was due to launch on Saturday. Spectacular explosion of a SpaceX rocket destroyed a $200 million communications satellite that would have extended Facebook’s reach across Africa, dealing a serious setback to Elon Musk, the billionaire who runs the rocket company.
The blast is likely to disrupt NASA’s cargo deliveries to the International Space Station, exposing the risks of the agency’s growing reliance on private companies like SpaceX to carry materials and, soon, astronauts. It could take several months to determine the accident’s cause and take remedial action, according to industry officials.
The incident occurred during preparations for a routine test firing about 9 a.m. at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rocket was being prepared for a static fire test, in which the rocket’s engines are turned on while the vehicle is constrained, according to the company. These tests are done just before a launch to see if everything is working properly. Propellant was being loaded into the Falcon 9 for the test when an explosion occurred around the top section of the rocket.
Information was sketchy, but eyewitness accounts described a series of explosions that could be felt miles away and a plume of thick smoke. "It might be something that has nothing to do with the launch vehicle," said Charles Miller, the president of NexGen Space LLC, a space consulting firm. "It could be the ground-support equipment or something else. So we need to get to the root cause before jumping to conclusions."
SpaceX said there were no injuries as a result of the explosion, which it described as an "anomaly." SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the explosion happened while the rocket was being fueled, but that the cause of the blast is still unknown.
Launch Complex 40, where the blast occurred, is an Air Force facility which has been leased to SpaceX. The company has launched 25 rockets from the site since 2010. Its rockets have carried supplies to the International Space Station as well as satellites. Last year, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket—which would also be used to fly astronauts—blew up a couple minutes after liftoff during a cargo mission. “This will always raise questions and possible delays, and certainly people redoubling their efforts on safety,” said Lori Garver, the former deputy NASA administrator.