SpaceX loses $195-million satellite in rocket explosion

A SpaceX rocket was damaged around 9:00 a.m. Thursday during a routine engine firing test ahead of an expected launch at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida this weekend. 

Marcia Dunn/AP
Smoke rises from a SpaceX launch site on Thursday at Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA said SpaceX was conducting a test firing of its unmanned rocket when a blast occurred.

SpaceX lost a rocket to an unusual explosion on Thursday, during a routine firing test conducted at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in preparation for a weekend launch.

"There was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload," SpaceX explained in a statement after the explosion. The rocket was unmanned, and no injuries were reported. 

The SpaceX Falcon rocket, the same kind that the company has used to send cargo loads to the International Space Station for NASA, was scheduled to carry a $195-million Israeli communications satellite into orbit this week.

If successful, that launch would have been the 29th for the company's Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX has been an ambitious leader in the race for private spaceflight, as it works toward a goal of developing reusable rockets. Two weeks ago, it successfully landed another Falcon 9 rocket for the sixth time in eight months. 

Thursday's explosion began at about 9:00 a.m. At first, NASA employees working nearby thought it sounded like lightening, but when the explosions continued, they rushed outside, the Associated Press reported. Explosions continued for several minutes, shaking buildings up to several miles away and leaving the rocket shrouded in smoke. Hours later, smoke was still coming from the launch pad, where the rocket was still standing, but visibly damaged and tilting to the side.

The explosion is a setback for SpaceX, and possibly for NASA, which contracts to SpaceX for International Space Station resupply flights. Accidents like this may help SpaceX avoid future problems by providing a learning opportunity, however.

"With space missions, even the most advanced simulations cannot replace learning by doing, given the multitude of variables involved and the importance of learning from experience," Loizos Heracleous, a Warwick Business School professor who has worked with NASA, said in an email. "This explosion will not change the long term goals of SpaceX, which are to reduce the cost of space flight through the use of reusable rockets, and eventually to colonise Mars."

SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk aims to send humans to Mars by 2025, part of a futuristic vision including cheaper space flight, facilitated by reusable rockets, and crewed missions on SpaceX craft. 

The learning curve to put men on mars may be risky, he has acknowledged. But it's "about having an architecture that would enable the creation of a self-sustaining city on Mars with the objective of being a multi-planet species and a true space-faring civilization and one day being out there among the stars," he told The Washington Post in June. 

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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