SpaceX Explosion a Stark Reminder of Spaceflight's Risks

The event is a blow for the commercial spaceflight company, but it's par for the course in the long history of rocket-powered exploration.

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Instagram user Tia Grant (@runswithwine) captured a fire burning on the launchpad after reports indicated that a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded during a test firing in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

An explosion rocked SpaceX’s launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, early Thursday—destroying one of the aerospace company’s rockets and the Israeli communications satellite it was scheduled to launch on Saturday.

SpaceX Rocket Explodes

Video footage shows the moment a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on a Florida launch pad on September 1. Video by

The blast occurred at about 9:07 a.m. local time at launch complex 40 of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a military installation east of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Eyewitnesses reported clouds of dark smoke and thunderous booms that could be felt for miles.

In a statement, the U.S. Air Force said that the explosion “has been no threat to public safety” and that the station’s emergency personnel are on the scene. In a separate statement, SpaceX said that “there was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload. Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries.”

Because the rocket was a commercial SpaceX vehicle on an Air Force launchpad, NASA does not have any direct information on the incident, says Kennedy Space Center public affairs officer Stephanie Martin.

“Kennedy Space Center Emergency Operations Center personnel are monitoring the situation and are standing by to assist if required,” she says. “Kennedy Environmental Health is monitoring the air quality to ensure it is safe for employees.”

At present, Martin says that Kennedy Space Center has no reported injuries or air quality concerns.

Failure Is Always an Option

The explosion is hardly unique in the inherently risky spaceflight industry. It wasn’t even the only rocket incident today: Early Thursday morning, China’s attempt to launch its Gaofen-10 satellite failed after an as yet unknown issue caused the catastrophic loss of its Long March 4C rocket.

This morning’s blast is also not the first to befall a SpaceX rocket.

On June 28, 2015, an unmanned Falcon 9 rocket exploded on its way to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, costing NASA at least $110 million. The blast was the first to affect a SpaceX rocket in the previous seven years, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in the weeks after the explosion.

The newest event underscores the fact that, despite the immortal words of Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz, failure is always an option when it comes to rockets. We’ve all heard the phrase, “it’s not rocket science.” In truth, the science of rockets is based upon very basic principles of physics. Rocket engineering is where things can get ugly.

"A rocket is an extremely complex device,” Jim Walsh, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Security Studies Program, told NPR. “There are millions of pieces and therefore millions of opportunities to make errors—to make errors in calculations, to make errors in construction."

Failure is especially common with new rocket designs. The United States, for instance, had 164 launch failures in the 20th century, but 101 of those were during the first 10 years of the space program, when engineers were striving to keep pace with the Soviet Union.

During the past decade, the growing demand for more efficient and cost-effective rocket designs has likewise led to innovations, and disappointments.

“In the United States, newly developed U.S. commercial launch systems, including Delta III, Conestoga, Athena, and Pegasus, suffered launch failures during their early developmental flights, a repeat of Vanguard, Juno, Thor, and Atlas failures in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” wrote rocketry expert I-Shih Chang, who led a study of U.S. launch failures between 1985 and 1999.

Learning From Tragedy

Although the overall success rate for rocket launches remains high (last year, 82 out of 87 made it into orbit worldwide), the cost of each failure in terms of dollars and credibility can be steep.

In 2003, for instance, Japan’s H2-A rocket—which was supposed to be a cheaper, more competitive replacement for its H2 launch system—had to be destroyed when two boosters failed to separate, making it impossible to reach orbit. The rocket had been carrying satellites intended to spy on North Korea, and the forced detonation was a $78 million international embarrassment.

One of the most expensive failures of an unmanned U.S. launch vehicle occurred in 2011, when a four-stage Taurus XL booster, carrying a $424 million satellite to study Earth’s climate, crashed into the Pacific Ocean after its nose cone didn’t separate on time.

Some rockets never even make it off the launchpad. The most horrific failure occurred in 1967, when a flash fire killed three NASA astronauts during a launchpad test of the Apollo and Saturn vehicles. The test, the first lethal tragedy to befall NASA’s then nascent human spaceflight program, was later named Apollo 1 in honor of the three victims.

The tragedy bore important fruit, however: NASA significantly improved the Apollo vehicle's safety features and protocols in the accident's aftermath, contributing to later Apollo missions' almost perfect safety record, Apollo 13 notwithstanding.

That willingness to learn from tragedy has carried through to the present: In a statement delivered after SpaceX's 2015 accident, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that the conflagration, like those that came before, was “a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but we learn from each success and each setback.”

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