Aeronautical technology is in the midst of rapidly taking off with enormous potential economic and societal benefits. Thanks to significant advancements in the technology in recent years as well as a renewed interest across the nation and world in pushing space exploration, such as the Trump Administration announcing in late September that it was bringing back together the National Space Council to develop coherent space technology development public policy plans.
Perhaps the most noted private sector company in making progress for space development in recent years is SpaceX, run by Elon Musk. While SpaceX has been a big innovator in recent years for aeronautical technology, their recent rocket launch mishaps combined with increasing upcoming responsibilities raises serious accountability and transparency questions about how the industry can be supported and protected as it matures.
SpaceX several days ago announced it was postponing its secretive Zuma Falcon 9 rocket launch from Kennedy Space Center for what appears to be very unclear reasons.
The Zuma rocket delay is particularly worthwhile because it is so representative of some of the questions facing the aeronautical industry at the moment. All SpaceX said publicly was that the delay was linked to a problem with the Falcon 9 rocket’s cones.
However that short statement belies the fact that just a few days prior, on November 4, a SpaceX engine exploded during testing at their facility in McGregor, Texas.
The engine that exploded, a “block five Merlin”, is meant to replace current “block four Merlin” engines in the Falcon 9 rockets. This Merlin block five engine is also scheduled to be used to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station in 2018.
A clear problem is brewing on the horizon. As companies such as SpaceX are given more responsibilities for live persons, the risks to the industry’s development are significant if there isn’t proper oversight. If a tragedy happens, the space development industry could be set back again for years.
In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded soon after takeoff, killing all seven crewmembers. In 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry, killing all seven crew as well. In both cases, such tragedies halted public support for space exploration for years afterwards as investigations sought to identify the technical causes behind the accidents.
With space exploration at such a pivotal point right now, with commercial space travel imminently on the horizon, it is clear that there needs to be transparency and investigation for such worrying test results as what happened with SpaceX’s Merlin block five engine explosion and the subsequent delay in rocket tests for what human astronauts will potentially be betting their lives on next year.
By preventing problems before they lead to tragedy, we can support the industry’s development and protect the lives of astronauts, let alone future commercial customers, who risk themselves in such a dangerous endeavor.
SpaceX has had its slew of disasters in the past, such as a June 2015 explosion of a fueling rocket to the International Space Station. In that case, not only were technical reports not released to the public despite being initially promised but taxpayers ended up being on the hook for a lot of money, in the June 2015 case over $110 million.
Other such notable incidents include when in September 2016 a Falcon 9 rocket exploded, costing the government $62 million and also destroying a $205 million Facebook satellite.
With SpaceX and other aeronautical companies preparing to put more people in these rockets, we need to ensure that the secrecy ends and that the public is properly briefed on the technology’s safety.
With many emerging technologies, public trust is an essential part of their adoption and success. For example, Google’s recent surge into self-driving cars has been accompanied by a massive campaign to educate the public on the issue.
The secrecy behind the block five Merlin engine explosion and the Zuma launch delay may seem to be just more of the same kind of business that SpaceX has been used to for many years.
However now we are at a time when the industry is nearing commercial and public access and with lives at risk, there needs to be a level of transparency and investigation.
Space exploration is one of the major technological horizons for this century. In order to protect lives, as well as prevent its slowdown due to backlash from accidents, we need to ensure there is a level of accountability we have not previously seen.