Four months after Falcon 9 explosion, SpaceX to resume flights Jan. 8

SpaceX says it now knows what caused the explosion of one of its Falcon 9 rockets last fall, and is ready to resume space flights.

SpaceX via AP
SpaceX's Falcon rocket booster lands on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean after launching a satellite into orbit.

Four months after a launchpad explosion devoured a Falcon 9 rocket and the commercial communications satellite onboard, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., commonly known as SpaceX, says it is ready to try again – in less than a week.

The company announced on its website Monday that it aims to launch an unmanned rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, Calif., on Sunday morning. The goal is to deliver Iridium Communications Inc. satellites into orbit without replicating the fueling problems that sent the September launch up in flames. 

Shortly after the explosion, SpaceX had said it expected to fly again as soon as November, but that prediction was pushed back multiple times as the firm 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.

"Clearly, they're being extra cautious," Marco Caceres, a senior space analyst for the Teal Group, told The Los Angeles Times. "SpaceX usually pushes ahead a lot faster, so it seems like they're not rushing ahead at this point, which is a good thing."

The company noted that its investigators have reviewed more than 3,000 video channels and telemetry data, in addition to physical debris and other evidence, to reach and validate the analyses and findings of the post-explosion probe. The team identified "several credible causes" pertaining to the rocket's super-chilled fuel, and the company took steps to remedy all of those potential causes.

John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute, told the Times that if the FAA grants SpaceX its customary launch license, then that should be a good sign that the conclusions of the accident investigation are convincing. SpaceX will need to have a successful next launch, followed by a series of successful launches thereafter, he said.

"A lot of users of space have been willing to depend on them," Dr. Logsdon told the Times. "And I think they have to demonstrate that they earned or re-earned that confidence."

SpaceX could lose customers in the long run if its missions face ongoing reliability challenges, but it is unlikely that its customers will rush to cut business ties, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last month. For one, it is not easy for companies like Iridium to switch satellite-ferrying firms quickly, so they might be inclined to put up with the delays, according to Matthew Bey, a science and technology analyst with global research firm and think tank Stratfor.

"It's very hard to organize a competitor in a matter of just months or a couple of weeks, so if all SpaceX clients wanted to do that, there simply in the next six months wouldn't be that many spare rockets in production, or that many launch schedules in production, to do that quickly or easily," Mr. Bey told the Monitor.

"I think there's an acceptance that SpaceX brought significant changes to the industry and that at some point SpaceX will probably succeed, but the question is when?" he added.

Even so, last fall's fiery launchpad fiasco prompted Elon Musk's prized spaceflight company to push back its plans for manned flights, delaying them from 2017 to 2018.

And the statement SpaceX released Monday suggests that its long-term plans will continue to include a fueling tactic that might dissuade some potential passengers and investors, as Andy Pasztor wrote for The Wall Street Journal:

The statement is notable because it indicates SpaceX intends to stick with plans to fuel its future manned rockets with supercooled oxygen and helium, while astronauts already would be strapped into capsules stacked on top. Such novel fueling procedures have been shunned by U.S. and foreign boosters for decades as potentially too dangerous in case something sparks an explosion before blastoff. The practice also has been challenged twice in the past year on safety grounds by a NASA advisory panel of outside experts.

Mr. Pasztor noted that expected design changes are likely to be implemented before astronauts board a rocket.

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