SpaceX Explosion Seen as Possible Slowdown for NASA Award

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NASA may delay awarding the next round of space-cargo delivery contracts pending an investigation into what caused a SpaceX rocket to explode after takeoff, the second failure in the U.S. program in less than a year.

With two postponements after an accident involving an Orbital ATK Inc. booster in October, a third is now possible following the loss of the SpaceX Falcon 9 on Sunday, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Nick Taborek. NASA’s current schedule envisions a decision in September.

Orbital and SpaceX are competing for the new funding after sharing the initial work of ferrying supplies to the International Space Station. The space-station cargo contract is the largest federal award for both Orbital and SpaceX, Taborek said Monday in a research note.

“SpaceX’s ability to undercut competitors’ prices may help make it the front-runner in NASA’s unmanned space-cargo competition,” Taborek wrote.

SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said on Twitter that the cause was still unknown after “several thousand engineering-hours of review.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration declined to comment on any plans for its awarded contracts. NASA also could select more than two winners for the cargo contract, Taborek said, choosing to add a new supplier such as Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. or Lockheed Martin Corp. to the deal.

The loss for Space Exploration Technologies Corp. levels the playing field for Orbital ahead of the fall competition, said Gautam Khanna, a Cowen & Co. analyst, in a note to clients Monday, giving each U.S. company a fail.

UAL Ammunition

For more, read this QuickTake: The New Space Race

The accident also will add ammunition to the United Launch Alliance, a Lockheed-Boeing partnership that’s facing concerns from the government about its use of Russian-made rocket engines.

The head of United Launch Alliance urged Congress last week to take a skeptical look at SpaceX’s performance.

The “space and business press is awash in stories that chronicle the history of SpaceX over-promising and under-delivering on both cost and schedule” for NASA missions, President Salvatore “Tory” Bruno told a House Armed Services Committee panel Friday in a statement.

Senator John McCain weighed in Monday regarding the SpaceX loss.

“I will be closely monitoring the outcome of the pending investigation into this launch failure, which comes after seven successful Falcon 9 launches,” to the space station, he said in an e-mailed statement.

Orbital fell 2.8 percent to $73.69 at the close in New York as broader indexes also tumbled. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 2 percent.