Rocket Blows Up, Smug Smile Fades

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As an aviation journalist, my job description isn’t exactly to cheer when a flying machine craters, runs amok, blows up or otherwise goes awry. Hey, two wings, one love, right? So it was with a little guilt when, like a beer burp you can’t quite keep down, I had this moment of so there, when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 blew itself into charred scrap metal last Thursday at Cape Canaveral during a test fire.

Horrible thought, right? I’ll concede I’m defenseless, but I know why that thought darkened my otherwise sunny and nurturing disposition. One reason is the private enterprise space industry’s natural tendency toward hubris and the other was that one purpose of the satellite being launched was to bring Facebook—internet access, really—to Africa. When boy billionaire Mark Zuckerberg reacted to the accident, his tone struck me a little shocked that his rocket could blow up. So, yeah, you’re not NASA, but your rockets can still blow up. Welcome to aerospace. There, got that off my chest.

The AMOS-6 satellite, an Israel Aerospace Industries build, was a multi-purpose satellite with 45 transponders for communication services in Europe and the Middle East, not just Facebook’s internet-to-Africa initiative. Facebook’s Zuckerberg has made it his calling to connect parts of the world that don’t have affordable internet access but his true intentions have been met with suspicion, mainly because single providers threaten the concept of net neutrality.

In India, a group of tech companies and users viewed Zuckerberg’s effort as less altruistic than just another marketing plan. My thought is, do people who don’t have clean water, sufficient food and who are dodging tribal wars really pine for the navel-gazing wonders of Facebook? It’s absurd to think this justifies blowing up a guy’s satellite, it just makes it harder to collapse on the floor in inconsolable grief. Hope they had enough insurance. Also, Facebook plans to build as many as 10,000 Aquila solar-powered drones to beam internet around the world. This is actually more ambitious than the satellite project.

But I know where the real genesis of my feeling is and it goes back to the NASA bashing Burt Rutan did in the early days of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism venture. Did I mention that was 12 years ago and Galactic has yet to fly a single tourist? There, got that off my chest, too. (And no, I’ll never get over it.)

If there’s anything useful to be derived from this it’s that private space ventures may or may not, in the long term, have better launch records than NASA or the Air Force. Thus far, before this accident, SpaceX was comparable to the rest of the industry, with about a 93 percent success rate. But it’s not better. SpaceX’s launch costs are the lowest in the industry and expected to get lower with scale and if reusable boosters work out. All good. But it’s always wise to remember this: No matter who you are, your rockets will still blow up. No matter how many likes you have.