On Sunday, a rocket-engine exploded during ignition tests at the SpaceX facility in Texas. The incident marks a setback for the company in what has otherwise been a pretty good year.
As The Washington Post reports, the explosion happened during a “qualification test” of a new Merlin engine, which SpaceX uses on its Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launch vehicles, and which is slated to be used on its upcoming Falcon Heavy. Based on this unfortunate result, it’s safe to say this particular unit wasn’t up to snuff. Thankfully there are no reports of injuries, but SpaceX has suspended engine testing pending an investigation.
Obviously, SpaceX would rather have an engine explode on a testing pad than when it’s 50,000 feet above sea level, but the company would also rather not have any explosions at all—particularly for engines that are so close to the finishing line.
In a statement, SpaceX said it’s “now conducting a thorough and fully transparent investigation of the root cause” of the blast and that the company “is committed to our current manifest, and we do not expect this to have any impact on our launch [schedule].”
Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, is no stranger to setbacks, and he seems almost immune to these sorts of technical complications. Two years ago, an uncrewed Falcon 9 exploded a few minutes after launch from Cape Canaveral, and in September 2016 another Falcon 9 experienced, in the words of Musk, a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” In all cases, no one was killed or hurt.
This incident marks the first blemish on what has been a fairly historic year for SpaceX. Musk’s company has flown 16 times already in 2017, with another three planned. That’s more than double the number of rockets the company lobbed into space last year. The 16 launches also matches the number set by United Launch Alliance, a major competitor of SpaceX. It’s not immediately clear how long the investigation into Sunday’s incident will last, or how it might influence the timing of future launches, despite SpaceX’s assurances to the contrary.
This rocket-engine explosion, even though it occurred in tests, is sure to catch the attention of not just commercial clients of SpaceX, but also the Pentagon (which uses the company to launch satellites into orbit) and NASA (which uses Falcon 9's to deliver cargo to the International Space Station). This incident should also make astronauts nervous. Should all go according to plan, NASA will use the upcoming Falcon Heavy rocket to deliver astronauts to space—a rocket with no less than 27 first-stage Merlin 1D engines thundering away beneath the crew.
Update: We were contacted by SpaceX, who wished to clarify a few things:
[Our] testing program for our existing Block 4 engines and Falcon 9 are not interrupted —they continue. We have temporarily stopped qualification testing for the Block 5 engine. That engine has not yet flown nor have we indicated when it will fly.
We don’t expect any impacts on our customers because they are all flying Block 4.