When SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket went up in a fireball of epic proportions on a Cape Canaveral, Florida, launch pad Thursday morning, the good news was that it was unmanned and no one was hurt. It exploded in the course a “static fire test,” a sort of dress rehearsal for a launch.*
The bad news is that, when said rocket went up in said fireball, so did its payload—a $200 million Israeli satellite that, among others, Facebook was counting on to beam internet service to sub-Saharan Africa as part of its ambitious Internet.org project. That’s despite the fact that it was only a static fire test, rather than the real thing.
Oh, and more bad news: It isn’t clear that the losses will be covered by the launch insurance policy, because the explosion happened during the fueling process, prior to intentional ignition.
In other words, this isn’t just a major setback for SpaceX, whose ambitions include flying astronauts to the International Space Station and ultimately colonizing Mars. (Not a joke.) It’s also a blow to everyone involved in the satellite, which was called AMOS-6.
Spacecom, the Israeli company that owned the satellite, declared it a “total loss,” and the company’s stock fell 9 percent, the Los Angeles Times reports. Eutelsat, the French-based satellite operator that had partnered with Facebook on the AMOS-6 lease, said it expected to lose out on upward of 45 million euros in revenue over the next three years.
For Facebook, meanwhile, the satellite was to be a linchpin of Internet.org, the free, stripped-down Internet service it is rolling out in less-developed countries (and, in at least one case, rolling back in). CEO Mark Zuckerberg was in Kenya when he heard the news, having scheduled an Africa trip this week to coincide with the satellite’s launch, the Verge’s Russell Brandom notes. He was … not pleased.
It is possible to read this as a sincere expression of sadness from Zuckerberg emanating from a place of deep concern for the people who will now have to go longer without access to his “Free Basics” data service. It is also possible, thanks to verbiage such as “deeply disappointed,” “destroyed,” and “SpaceX’s launch failure,” to read it as a stone-cold smackdown of SpaceX and its own CEO, Elon Musk. Probably the statement contains some of each, seasoned with a healthy dose of righteous posturing from a man who has anointed himself champion of the sick and the poor. To be fair, on that score, Zuckerberg has put plenty of money where his mouth is.
At this point, we don’t know whether the explosion stemmed from any sort of negligence on the part of SpaceX or anyone else, or whether it was simply the kind of thing that inevitably happens in the spaceflight business, because the spaceflight business is exceedingly hard.
What we know is that both Zuckerberg and Musk are among a handful of Silicon Valley tech titans who are using their money and power to push boundaries in their respective ways. That is admirable, and it is also risky. Here’s the rub: It’s risky not so much for them personally—they’ll be just fine, I’m confident—but for all the people they’ve persuaded to count on them.
*Update, Sept. 1, 2016: This sentence was rephrased to remove the implication that anyone would have been hurt if it were a real launch rather than a static test.