"Space is hard," the saying goes. It's the default line trotted out anytime there is a rocket launch failure. On Sunday, when a SpaceX rocket exploded on the way to the International Space Station, that phrase was repeated over and over.
"Space flight's not easy, as we've described before, and I think this points out the difficulty of and the challenges we face in spaceflight," Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA, said Sunday.
SpaceX, however, had been making space look easy for the last few years. This failure is a stark reminder that the country's most exciting space company may need to pump the brakes on some of its more ambitious projects.
"There's never really a good time for a rocket to blow up, I guess. But, yeah, this one is pretty bad"
The company has successfully resupplied the International Space Station six times before. Its Falcon 9 rocket has flown 18 consecutive successful missions before Sunday's disaster. The big challenge Sunday was supposed to be landing the rocket on a drone ship; that the mission to resupply the ISS for a seventh time might fail altogether was never mentioned.
The problem is, everything SpaceX wants to do demands that space become something other than "difficult."
When your plan is to reuse rockets, launch an array of internet-providing satellites, and eventually send regular missions to Mars, space cannot remain "hard." "Easy" is probably not the right word, but perhaps "routine" is.
"There's never really a good time for a rocket to blow up, I guess. But, yeah, this one is pretty bad," Ashlee Vance, who just wrote a biography of Elon Musk, told me. "SpaceX had really just started to hit its stride."
Now we're left wondering what this failure means for the future of one of America's most exciting companies.
Over the last few months, SpaceX printed Martian travel posters, announced side projects to build a hyperloop and space internet served by satellites, sparred with rivals in front of Congressional panels, and said that "no one laughs" anymore when the company talks about settling Mars. Today, it's solemnly discussing second-stage pressurization issues and trying to, quite literally, pick up the pieces of its rocket scattered throughout the Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said Sunday that the company doesn't expect the failure to drastically alter any of its plans. SpaceX will still fly astronauts to the International Space Station in 2017, she said. Earlier this month, the company got certified by the Air Force to launch military rockets, and Shotwell doesn't expect this failure to jeopardize those missions, either.
The first consequence of the crash—an investigation to find out what went wrong—will be easier for SpaceX than it has been for other companies that don't make most of their own components.
"If I were going to launch a capsule with crew on it, I would be more comfortable with an Atlas V than a Falcon 9"
But an internal investigation would likely be just the first obstacle the company will face before it gets the final go-ahead to fly NASA astronauts to the ISS and launch military satellites. Coming back from a disaster like this is rarely as simple as performing an internal investigation and handing it over the relevant government authorities—there will be Congressional hearings and political grandstanding to overcome, as well.
Before the crash, some members of Congress had already asked NASA to reconfigure its Space Launch System rocket, currently planned to go to a deep-space asteroid and to Mars, to be able to service the ISS because some lawmakers believe commercial companies can't reliably get to the ISS. Navigating those politics won't be easy, either.
"Not only does this hurt the Air Force stuff, but it will also give SpaceX's detractors in Congress fodder to keep pushing forward with ridiculous provisions around the SLS," Vance said.
The failure also hurts SpaceX's reputation compared to its competitors. The space startup has at times been publicly brash, and there's sentiment among some in the industry that it's arrogant (Shotwell notoriously said she "doesn't understand" why competitor United Launch Alliance's rockets are so expensive).
It's true that ULA's rockets are expensive, and that the Boeing-Lockheed Martin conglomerate's continued reliance on Russian Rockets is concerning on many fronts, but that company can still boast that its rockets have never, ever failed during a mission.
"If I were going to launch a capsule with crew on it, I would be more comfortable with an [ULA] Atlas V than a Falcon 9," said Marco Caceres, a space industry analyst at the Teal Group.
"I don't think SpaceX was careless, but I think that one of the dangers was SpaceX getting a little too overconfident. With all the business they've gotten, they've been under increasing pressure to launch more frequently," he said. "They may need to slow down a bit."
Still, Caceres thinks that this the company will recover, and that both SpaceX's commercial partners and those in Congress will need to support the company while it retools.
"I think Falcon 9 has earned the trust that its customers have had. Eighteen consecutive successes and relatively inexpensive launch prices," he said. "It is now no longer an outsider in the industry—it's enough of an establishment player that the government has to give it the benefit of the doubt."
SpaceX may not launch another rocket for the next several months. And when it does, everyone rooting for SpaceX will have their fingers crossed—not because they are hoping it can autonomously land a rocket on a drone boat, but because the future of the company will absolutely be at stake.
"One failure is not a tragedy," Caceres said. "These things happen occasionally. The key is that it not become a pattern."