Elon Musk says SpaceX launches could resume next month

In an interview with CNBC Friday, SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said that his company could return its rockets to flight in mid-December, following a Sept. 1 explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its payload.

US Launch Report/Handout
An explosion on the launch site of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is shown in this still image from video in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Sept. 1.

Two months after a fueling failure caused a SpaceX rocket to burst into flames, the space launch company says it hopes its resume its launches as early as next month. 

In an interview with CNBC Friday, chief executive Elon Musk said the company had learned the reason for the explosion and that SpaceX rockets could return to flight by mid-December. 

"I think we've gotten to the bottom of the problem," Mr. Musk said. Investigators reportedly determined that the failure was caused by a fueling system malfunction that produced solid oxygen inside the rocket's upper stage tank, causing a reaction with a carbon composite bottle containing liquid helium that sits inside the oxygen tank, resulting in an explosion. 

The Sept. 1 explosion raised the question of whether the private space company, which aims to send colonists to Mars by 2024, has been pushing the boundaries of space exploration a little too hard. Others predicted that the accident would create an opportunity for Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, a rival aerospace company.

SpaceX has also faced criticism from NASA for its plans to fuel rockets with humans on board, as Christina Beck reported for The Christian Science Monitor last week: 

NASA first raised questions about SpaceX’s unusual fueling procedures months before the company’s catastrophic Sept. 1 launchpad explosion. On Monday, a NASA advisory committee issued stronger warnings regarding the way SpaceX intends to fuel rockets that will eventually carry humans.


SpaceX employs a different fueling strategy than other companies: It uses chilled liquid oxygen in order to be able to fit more fuel in the tank and lift more weight into orbit, an innovative step that has allowed SpaceX to break new ground in cargo carriage. But because of this special fueling method, its spacecraft must be fueled immediately before launch so that the fuel does not warm up, which means that in the future, astronauts will likely be aboard prior to fueling.

Despite concerns from NASA and other leaders in the spaceflight industry, some experts say mishaps such as the Falcon 9 rocket explosion, which also destroyed a $200 million communications satellite commissioned by Facebook to bring wireless connectivity to remote and impoverished areas, are a normal part of experimentation.

"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 in England who has worked with NASA, told the Monitor 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." 

Speaking on Friday, Musk did not elaborate on which mission would launch next or which launch pad SpaceX would use. 

This report contains material from Reuters. 

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