Is the Future of SpaceX and Commercial Space Travel Doomed?

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Last Sunday the world looked on as Falcon 9, the unmanned rocket from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, exploded after lift-off and plummeted from the sky near Cape Canaveral. In just a few minutes, the rocket named “Dragon” that was tasked with a resupply mission, and was carrying over a thousand pounds of food to the International Space Station, had failed.

Next SpaceX faces an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration to get to bottom of what went wrong. This is the third re-supply mission to fail over the last year (the other two weren’t SpaceX missions). SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 flight, which was scheduled for August and would deliver the Jason-3 Earth observation satellite into orbit, has now been postponed according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It is revising a new launch date for Jason-3.

A few failures aside, the Elon Musk led company has firmly moved into the mainstream in the ever growing private space travel industry. SpaceX has, in many ways, become synonymous with commercial space travel and the potential market for “space tourism” but it faces some major hurdles in trying to get there.

SpaceX’s latest tests and launches have largely centered on landing and recovering the rocket that launches its spaceships. It has manufactured a floating platform for its rocket to land on in the water, which can then be recovered and reused if possible. This could potentially reduce space travel costs significantly. However this has been plagued with issues. Two tests, in January and April, failed to land safely.

With SpaceX planning to launch its first rocket in 2017 with people inside, is its future plans in jeopardy? SpaceX has had a number of successful launches but people remember the bad ones more so. Errors and mistakes are expected in such a complicated and challenging environment but SpaceX’s latest failure could have long term effects on the company. Not to mention it must content with some staff shake-ups in recent times including the departure of Barry Matsumori, a “top salesman”, on Monday.

Meanwhile NASA was scheduled to hold the next bidding process for delivering supplies to ISS later this summer. It would be something that’s definitely on SpaceX’s radar but that bid is likely to be pushed back in the wake of the Dragon’s crash.

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Nevertheless SpaceX remains determined to land a rocket on one of its floating platforms as it believes that it could revolutionize space travel and indeed it could. Reusability is generally unheard of when it comes to rockets. After a launch, the rocket is often considered useless. It’s served its purpose of launching a spaceship and now we move on but if it was possible to reuse rockets or parts of rockets, it would be a major money and time saver.

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred,” said Musk in the past. “A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”

Ultimately, SpaceX wants to land rockets on the ground but it’s not the only private space company trying its hand at this radical idea. Blue Origin, led by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, recently tested its own landing rocket New Shepard. While these tests were unsuccessful too, it is hot on the heels of SpaceX. Another company, United Launch Alliance threw its hat in the ring recently as well.

Sunday’s failure for SpaceX lobs a spanner into the works for the company’s schedule for future flights with postponements and investigations afoot. Does it mean that Musk and co have to go back to the drawing board? Not quite., but SpaceX will need to some intense reworking on its rockets’ subtleties.

It’s not all bleak though. The US has been advised, according to a Monday report from Reuters, that despite SpaceX’s Sunday failure, it should not turn to Russia for rockets. “This mishap in no way diminishes the urgency of ridding ourselves of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine,” said John McCain, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman.

This may be a lifeline for SpaceX in its long term goal of winning US military contracts. Lockheed Martin and Boeing are two of the companies dominating that space.

A Pentagon spokesperson added that there is a need for multiple suppliers. “We think that this really … demonstrates the need for assured access to space through two routes,” said the spokesperson. With that idea open and competition for bids growing, that will be some good news at least for SpaceX in the future but safety and reliability is paramount.

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