Air Force Joins Investigation into SpaceX Rocket Explosion

An explosion destroyed a SpaceX rocket during a pre-flight test on Sept. 1, 2016, at Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Screen grab via YouTube video by USLaunchReport.com)An explosion destroyed a SpaceX rocket during a pre-flight test on Sept. 1, 2016, at Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Screen grab via YouTube video by USLaunchReport.com)

The Air Force has joined the investigation to determine what exactly caused a SpaceX rocket to explode in a spectacular fireball on the launchpad.

“The U.S. Air Force is poised and prepared to support SpaceX recovery and return to flight efforts,” Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the Space & Missile Systems Center and the service’s program executive officer for space, said in a statement.

A massive explosion destroyed the company’s Falcon 9 rocket carrying an Amos-6 satellite during a pre-launch test 9:07 a.m. local time on Thursday at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Later that day, Elon Musk, the billionaire chief executive officer of SpaceX, said the incident occurred during a “propellant fill operation” as part of an engine test and that the explosion originated near the “upper stage oxygen tank.” But he said the cause was “still unknown.”

The Air Force will also be working with the Federal Aviation Administration, which is overseeing the investigation.

“While this was not a National Security Space launch mission, the U.S. Air Force will continue working with SpaceX to ensure confidence in the safe and reliable launch of critical National Security Space satellites,” Greaves said.

The Air Force this year awarded SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California, its first substantial military contract, a deal valued at $83 million to launch a GPS satellite aboard its Falcon 9 rocket in May 2018.

It will be the first of nine contracts the Pentagon plans to award in the next three years, according to Space News.

The incumbent in the defense market, a Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin Corp. joint venture called United Launch Alliance LLC, based Centennial, Colorado, decided not to bid for the award. The venture has faced calls from lawmakers and defense officials to restrict the use of Russian-made engines on its Atlas rockets.

With no official cause of the explosion yet identified, the Internet has started speculating.

A new video by non-profit US Launch Report shows frame-by-frame footage of an unidentifiable object passing over the rocket just before its dramatic combustion. Observers have begun guessing what the blurry blob could be, from a bird to a UFO.

“The U.S. Air Force will not speculate on the cause of the anomaly,” Greaves said.

Either way, Elon Musk may have more to worry about than whether the grainy image could be E.T. or Alf.

Space Communication Ltd., the Israeli firm that owned the Amos-6 satellite, on Sunday said it may seek $50 million in damages for the failed launch, Reuters reported. The firm, known as Spacecom, may also ask Israel Aerospace Industries, which built the satellite, for an additional $205 million, according to Reuters.

Once in orbit, Amos 6 was scheduled to provide expanded Internet access for parts of Africa, according to the newswire. Facebook and Eutelsat S.A. were among the key clientele leasing the satellite’s services, it reported.

About the Author

Oriana Pawlyk
Oriana Pawlyk is a reporter at Military.com. She can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.