In a historic launch, risk-loving SpaceX learns to love a dose of prudence

Into the clouds.
Into the clouds.
Image: Reuters/Joe Skipper
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Kennedy Space Center, Florida

It seemed Elon Musk’s rare abundance of caution would be punished.

Yesterday, the SpaceX founder and chief designer took personal credit for scrubbing a launch with a “99%” likelihood of success in order to investigate anomalies in his Falcon 9 rocket. The 24-hour delay gave time for clouds to roll in; rain fell on the Cape as the countdown began this morning. But with 18 minutes left to go, the sky brightened, and US Air Force meteorologists gave the go-ahead.

For the first time since the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011, a rocket roared into life from launchpad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center before disappearing into the clouds overhead.

A lot has changed in five years. Just minutes after the launch, accompanied by three sonic booms, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket returned to earth miles from where it had left. The ability to return the first stage—crammed with nine expensive and complicated Merlin engines—rather than discarding it, is part of the space revolution Musk promises. The company plans to fly one of those “flight-proven” stages next month.

What matters most, of course, is that the Dragon spacecraft on top of the rocket, carrying 5,500 lbs (2,490 kg) of supplies, equipment, and scientific experiments, is safely en route to the International Space Station today. SpaceX needed to make good on its obligations to NASA, the company’s biggest client, after six months on the ground resolving a fueling problem that caused a Falcon 9 to explode on the launch pad last September.

That accident, and the loss of a mission to ISS in 2015, had cost SpaceX hundreds of millions of dollars. But it also forced the company to re-invest in new reliability procedures and reconsider its priorities. Speaking to the press before the launch, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell emphasized that the company’s focus was on fulfilling its obligations to NASA, particularly when it comes to flying astronauts in 2018.

As the countdown proceeded yesterday, SpaceX engineers were tracking an anomaly in the hydraulic pistons that steer the second stage. Aware that both of SpaceX’s major accidents originated in the second stage, Musk decided to cancel the countdown, with just thirteen seconds left on the clock. Over night, the rocket was lowered back to the ground, and SpaceX technicians entered the rocket to replace the piston assembly with a new part.

The extensive investment in upgrading the historic launchpad to meet the needs of SpaceX and its clients likely played a role in this decision. Shotwell said the final cost of upgrading the pad was more than $100 million, and with repairs still underway at the pad damaged in the September accident, the risk of losing another pad, especially one with this kind of heritage, loomed large.

Musk’s decision to wait a day is especially interesting when juxtaposed with NASA’s announcement that the space agency will consider flying humans around the moon in the first flight of the new government-designed rocket, the Space Launch System, and its spacecraft, the Orion. The surprise decision to accelerate human spaceflight—and the complicated safety precautions it requires—was a surprisingly risk-forward move for the cautious agency.

SpaceX has always embraced risk; that’s how it succeeded in developing the technology to land its boosters, testing them as even as it flew contracted missions for satellite operators and NASA. But the stakes are growing ever higher for the company as it amasses new clients and projects and balances them against its founding mission of inter-planetary exploration.