At the start of this month, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. You’d think that would probably set the company back quite a while before it started launches again. But the company’s president has claimed they could return to flying as soon as November.
Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, made the comments yesterday at the Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris. She said they expected the launches would cease for about three months, before “getting back to flight in November.”
That would be a remarkable turnaround, if true. Consider that another launch operator, Orbital Sciences, are only now preparing to start launching their Antares rocket again, after one of their rockets exploded almost two years ago. For SpaceX to complete the same return to flight in less than three months would be a testament to the “never say never” attitude at Elon Musk’s company.
One reason SpaceX can return to flight so early is that it has other launch pads it can use. It has one at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and is busy upgrading another at Cape Canaveral. The latter, Launch Pad 39A, was intended for upcoming flights of the Falcon Heavy rocket (which has understandably been delayed to early next year), but can also apparently be used for Falcon 9 launches.
Above, video of Shotwell making the comments at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week yesterday.
One sticking point is that SpaceX still does not know what caused the explosion on September 1; the rocket was going through a routine test and its engines weren’t even on. There are plenty of theories at the moment, but until the cause is forthcoming, the company won’t go through the motions of launching, in case the issue rears itself again.
The three-month return to flight is therefore a “best case scenario” for the company. But Shotwell added that both pads would be ready by November, with each offering different flight options; Vandenberg is better for polar orbits, while Cape Canaveral is the only one of the two that can fly Dragon cargo missions to the ISS owing to the orientation of its launches.
As for the pad in the explosion, Launch Complex 40, officials from the Air Force said the damage was only “moderate” and was “definitely repairable”, reported the Wall Street Journal. It's also recently emerged that NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft only narrowly escaped serious damage from the explosion, too.
For those fearing a long hiatus in SpaceX flights, this is all good news. And, with the announcement that its competitor Blue Origin is planning to launch its New Glenn rocket by the end of the decade, SpaceX will want to continue to prove it’s the major player shaking up the industry at the moment – not anyone else.