A SpaceX rocket exploded in the skies above McGregor, Texas, during a test flight on Saturday. Though a nonchalant Elon Musk waved the mishap with a short tweet acknowledging that "Rockets are tricky," the fact remains that explosions are scary and tend not to reflect well on companies.
SpaceX is a leading commercial spaceflight company with plans to shift business to Texas with the ultimate goal of launching humans to the International Space Station. Its successes are hailed as steps toward the next generation of aeronautics. Its failures, such as Saturday's destruction of a new version of the Falcon 9, routinely generate outcry from industry workers questioning whether SpaceX should ever stake human lives on its drive to work "faster, cheaper, better."
Thankfully no one was injured in the Falcon 9 explosion. The spacecraft self-destructed as soon as it detected a problem onboard, according to a SpaceX statement. The company stated it would review flight records and update the space community on what really happened after a full assessment.
Donald Barker, a Johnson Space Center employee on furlough, called on the space community to give SpaceX breathing room to do so. The Falcon 9 explosion was just part of the learning process and why companies conduct tests, he said.
"If SpaceX is open and honest about the event, the results and show safe and reliable progress than it is not a problem," Barker said. "It may make things run a little slower for a while, while they assess the causes and make fixes, but that is expected."
Three engine F9R Dev1 vehicle auto-terminated during test flight. No injuries or near injuries. Rockets are tricky ...
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 23, 2014
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SpaceX doesn't have a perfect launch record, but it is improving over time. Perhaps it is in spaceflight's interest to take heed in Musk's sideline tweet - rockets are indeed tricky. NASA also experienced disastrous setbacks in its shuttle program, yet astronauts continue to lock themselves into capsules atop millions of pounds of explosives for the chance to explore space.
Paul Huter, an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics spacecraft design consultant, said "anyone who believes that this mishap will doom SpaceX's hopes of launching humans is mistaken." As SpaceX competes with other commercial spaceflight companies for NASA funds, Huter hopes NASA would cut SpaceX some slack.
"Without companies like SpaceX, the U.S. will continue to rely on foreign partners for transport to the Station," he said. "NASA cannot look at one failure and discount SpaceX from helping America fly Americans to space."
Let's hope SpaceX can eventually sort it out.