Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s rocket test that ended with an explosion over Texas may slow a U.S. decision on a contract to take astronauts to the International Space Station, an aerospace analyst said.
The company led by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk said the F9R vehicle self-destructed automatically after an “anomaly” following the Aug. 22 launch in McGregor, Texas. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is nearing a decision among contenders including SpaceX for manned missions to the station by 2017.
“The timing is difficult because you have this failure just before the award,” Marco Caceres, director of space studies at Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant Teal Group, said today. “At a minimum it may delay the announcement because NASA needs to get its ducks in a line and get all the information.”
SpaceX is the first private company to deliver cargo to the space station under a $1.6 billion NASA contract and seeks to expand that to manned launches using its own capsule and rocket. The U.S. has depended on Russian rockets to carry astronauts since retiring the shuttle fleet in 2011, a situation that’s grown riskier because of the crisis in Ukraine.
The F9R is a different version of the rocket now used on NASA missions by Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX.
Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman, declined to discuss the SpaceX incident and the timing of any future announcements. John Taylor, a spokesman for SpaceX, declined to comment on whether the accident may affect NASA’s evaluation.
NASA has said an award for manned flights may be announced as early as this month. The agency sought $848.3 million for the commercial spaceflight program in fiscal 2015, and estimates total spending of $3.42 billion on the initiative through the end of the decade, according to documents posted on its website.
SpaceX’s competitors for the manned-launch contract include Boeing Co. (BA), the world’s largest aerospace company, and closely held Sierra Nevada Corp. Neither has sent its own vehicle to the station, and each uses the Atlas V rocket, which relies on Russian engines, Caceres said.
“The culture of NASA is quite conservative,” Caceres said. SpaceX has a lower-cost rocket and capsule, “and there are clearly some advantages to going with a lower-cost system,” he said. “It’s also still a relatively new system, and the company is still working out some issues.”
SpaceX has sent Dragon capsules to the space station four times with its Falcon 9 rocket, including three official cargo trips. The next launch is set to occur as soon as Sept. 18 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The company’s cargo contract with NASA is for at least 12 missions.
The Dragon V2 capsule, which was unveiled in May, is designed to carry as many as seven astronauts as well as supplies. The vehicle is intended to be reusable, and land vertically after returning to Earth, Musk said.