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Caution rules: Foul weather prolongs four-month SpaceX launch hiatus

SpaceX has an ambitious timeline, but a more cautious approach may be necessary, some observers say, given how much is at stake.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk speaks Sept. 27 during the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he discussed his aspirations of colonizing Mars.
Refugio Ruiz/AP/File | Caption

High winds and rain prompted Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to once again postpone its scheduled launch of a Falcon 9 rocket Sunday, prolonging a four-month lull caused by a launchpad explosion.

The firm, commonly known as SpaceX, had announced last week that its investigation into the explosion was complete and that it planned to return to flight over the weekend. But a winter storm pummeling central California conspired with other conflicts, the company said, to force at least a week-long delay. Although a cautious pace makes it tough for SpaceX to achieve its objectives on an ambitious timeline, the approach could be necessary, given how much is on the line.

"They've got to prove it and restore confidence in their system on this flight," Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Washington Post. "If they have another failure, it’s going to stop them dead in their tracks."

Shortly after the explosion in September, SpaceX had said it expected to fly again as soon as November, but that forecast was amended multiple times as the company carried out an investigation with the US Air Force, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and others. The latest plans call for a launch Saturday, Jan. 14, with a backup date the following day.

"Bad weather the cause. Anti-rain dances didn’t work – oh well," tweeted Matt Desch, chief executive of Iridium Communications Inc., the company for which SpaceX is looking to launch 10 satellites into low Earth orbit on its next flight.

After reviewing the SpaceX investigative report, the FAA granted the firm a two-year launch permit authorizing seven Falcon 9 flights, each carrying 10 satellites for Iridium. A series of successes could place SpaceX on more solid ground, but some observers say the company cannot afford to suffer another major setback.

The launchpad explosion and subsequent delays effectively foiled Facebook's plan to provide satellite internet to large portions of sub-Saharan Africa, and it also jeopardized a pending deal with Chinese telecommunications company Beijing Xinwei Technology Group, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last month. And the explosion itself caused significant financial damage.

The Israeli company that owned a satellite destroyed on the launchpad with the Falcon 9 rocket expects to receive more than $200 million in insurance payments, Spaceflight Now reported. And that does not include the possibility of another $50 million in compensation – or a free additional flight – it's seeking from SpaceX.

The revised FAA permit granted to SpaceX on Friday requires the company to hold $35 million in liability insurance and $62 million in government property insurance (or otherwise demonstrate financial responsibility) – and that coverage applies only to property owned by the US government, its agencies, contractors, and subcontractors.

Although the financial risks of another launchpad mishap are daunting in themselves, the harm to SpaceX's reputation could be an even bigger blow.

"Another failure would be very bad for SpaceX, because although the company still has a few years worth of launches on the books, it will have a hard time selling future customers on its safety record with a pair of back-to-back launchpad mishaps," WIRED reporter Nick Stockton wrote Friday. "And Musk would be selling his launches against the superior safety records of competitors like United Launch Alliance, Sierra Nevada, and Orbital ATK."

What could set SpaceX apart from its rivals is the ability to relaunch rockets, saving perhaps tens of millions with each launch, Mr. Stockton wrote.

"Reusability, along with other pioneering budget-busters like highly compressed propellant, are what SpaceX was banking on in order to fulfill its promise of offering spaceflight to civilians," he added.

Jim Muncy, president of the consulting firm PoliSpace, said SpaceX has sought to innovate continuously but seems to be proceeding with a bit more caution in light of recent setbacks.

"As you try to increase performance, you find out if you’re pushing the envelope too far," Mr. Muncy told the Post. "They’re clearly pulling back and not pushing the envelope as much with this launch."