Rocket Failure Big Setback to SpaceX’s Military Ambitions


The failure of a SpaceX mission to resupply the International Space Station will have serious implications not only for the company’s civilian and commercial business, but also its ambitions to crack into the military market.

The explosion of the company’s Falcon 9 on June 28 over Cape Canaveral, Florida — more than two minutes into flight — came just a month after it was certified by the U.S. Air Force to carry military satellites.

The certification ended a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. monopoly in the defense market by allowing SpaceX’s Falcon 9 to launch national-security payloads under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable launch Vehicle program. SpaceX planned to begin competing for military missions this month, when the Air Force was expected to release a request for proposals to launch a GPS III satellite.

Air Force’s officials hailed the approval as a milestone that would help to control rising launch costs. But given yesterday’s mishap, critics are likely to argue the decision was premature. What’s more, the certification process that took two years, cost more than $60 million and involved 150 people may not be over.

Under a June 2013 Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between SpaceX and the Air Force, the company had to perform at least three successful flights of a common launch vehicle configuration to be considered for launching critical and high-cost national-security payloads.

While SpaceX completed enough launches of the latest version of the Falcon 9, a two-stage medium-lift booster known as version 1.1, to meet that requirement, it’s unclear how yesterday’s failure will impact its certification status. A request for comment from Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center wasn’t immediately returned.

Meanwhile, the cause of the Falcon 9 failure is still under investigation. Elon Musk, the billionaire head of SpaceX, said the problem occurred shortly before first-stage separation.

In tweets after the accident, he wrote, “There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause.” Several hours later, he followed that with, “Cause still unknown after several thousand engineering-hours of review. Now parsing data with a hex editor to recover final milliseconds.”

The Falcon 9 had completed seven previously successful missions delivering food, water and supplies to the International Space Station. The booster will now be grounded for “a number of months or so,” while an investigation into the explosion takes place, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said during a news conference.

Gen. John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, in April at the Space Symposium, has warned that failures will disrupt how the service will buy rocket launches from competitive providers.

“If something goes wrong, what do you have to do to return to fly in this kind of environment and who makes that decision?” he said at the time. “Because I’m not going to stand up and put a billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket I don’t know is going to work. And if that’s the case, then that company who now is on this very busy launch schedule is now down. How do they stay in business with the other competitor launching and launching and launching? That’s a fundamental issue.”

United Launch Alliance LLC, the Lockheed-Boeing joint venture and sole supplier of the EELV program, has attracted publicity over the past year for relying on a Russian engine, RD-180, to power its Atlas family of rockets. But the technology — and additional mission-assurance funding — has helped the firm achieve 96 successful launches since its formation in 2006.

As tough as this looks for the military, NASA has it far worse. This was the third time a cargo resupply mission to the space station failed since last fall, when an Orbital-ATK Antares rocket that relied on a Soviet-era first-stage engine exploded at Wallops Island, Virginia. Ironically, the company plans to retrofit the booster with the newer Russian engine, RD-181, and return to flight by the end of the year.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • t1oracle

    This is a huge set back. Space X is under a lot of pressure to deliver and every failure is going to be closely scrutinized and used against them. I hope they really take their time with the next launch, because the press will not be forgiving. Building rockets is really hard and I hope at least one of these companies gets it right.

  • Dfens

    No rocket ever built has had more than one 9 of reliability. It is stupid to act shocked when one blows up since simple probabilities dictate that about one in 50 launches is going to end in failure. What we really need is a space program that doesn’t rely on rockets. A horizontal take off and landing, air breathing first stage vehicle would provide huge improvements in both cost and performance, although clearly someone other than Rutan needs to design it. Maybe someone who actually knows what the f they’re doing.

  • kwang

    the misile had alot of flame behinde. it meaned the flame lacked of oxygen. my cook has got a very shape blue light . i think some of them has bufffalo brain

  • anomyous coward

    so that is why they call it rocket science…

  • franklin

    I read a story before the launch about Elon being on edge before every launch and I thought it was a weird thing to say. It felt kind of gloomy. With the number of recent failures I am curious if electromagnetic energy and full spectral monitoring are being conducted to rule out interference. It seems to me that normal system failure would be captured by onboard telemetry. If this is a quality control issue then it is good that it happened now and not later when critical missions such as manned are undertaken.
    I wish the Space X team all the best!

  • toba

    sabotage from rivals. lol..

    • Ziv

      No kidding. Three launch failures in the last year or so, first Orbital Science blew up then Progress spun out of control in April and now Spacex.

      I think Dr. Evil is shooting the competition down with a space based laser in order to take over the space industry.

      • franklin

        Never make fun of Murphy’s law. Hopefully we can rise above it.

  • Dean

    Aerospike nozzles have their own problems, not the least of which is that the wetted nozzle throat area is a lot higher. The linear aerospike tested for X-33 had considerably lower performance than predicted because of the high nozzle throat losses. That effectively ended the case for higher average Isp for aerospikes. They also have lower thrust-to-weight ratios. No gain, no aerospike engines.

    • Dfens

      If this shit were easy the Russians would have done it already. Both the plug flow and the aerospike nozzles have similar issues in that regard, and the plug flow nozzle has the additional issue of cooling since it sits in the middle of really hot flow. The thing is, they’re only problems until you solve them and at this point there appears to me to be a lot of potential solutions that have not been tried due to the sorry state of our space program. Rockets are no longer designed by rocket designers and rocket engines are no longer designed by rocket engine designers. So now we have the best rockets and rocket engines that can be conceived by committee of the unaccountable.

  • Super Tex

    This is all part of the growing pains, any rocket development goes through. Even the mighty Saturn V had problems. Losing a lox tank isn’t that big of a deal. There are just a few things that can cause it. Bad weld, bad valve, inferior tank material. Space X should get this squared away in quick order.

  • MartynW

    SpaceX might want to look into a more robust failure mode for cargo missions. The Dragon capsule is a reentry vehicle with a parachute. If it was designed with a system to detect a launch failure at altitude, break loose, fall back into thicker air, and deploy chutes in an emergency, it would at least stand a chance of saving the capsule payloads. The trunk payloads would still be a loss.

    This system assumes no abort rockets on cargo payloads, which I suspect would be an unacceptable weight penalty.

  • W.W.

    …this passes all the speculations for a “NWO attack”;

    1. Extremely clear weather…an IR high power laser would have worked.

    2. Missile toppled from the top…broad beam IR pulse would cause over-pressure

    3. Musk needed 2 more launches, this one will force a reset to the next 4-5

    4. Musk openly complained about USAF legalities…Lockheed is primary competitor and know in the UFO community as a NWO agent on Mars (Mars Delta)

    Keep your eyes open for the mysterious death of related executives, USAF personnel
    and “fudge-factor” comments by high USG people, White House spin doctors.


  • Roland

    It needed to rework its rocket booster. Probably Atlas model should have been used for successful flight.