SpaceX Saved? Air Force Stands By Elon Musk, its Rocketman

"On June 28, 2015, following a nominal liftoff, Falcon 9 experienced an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank approximately 139 seconds into flight, resulting in loss of mission."

-- SpaceX statement

Final microseconds of NASA's Commercial Resupply mission CRS-7. Photo: NASA.

SpaceX's CRS-7 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) last month resulted in a "SpaceXplosion", and a fiery spectacle in the skies above Cape Canaveral -- but it could have been worse.

In less than a tenth of a second, the explosion vaporized 4,000 pounds of supplies destined for ISS astronauts, along with a docking stationthat, if it had made it to ISS, would have facilitated docking by SpaceX and Boeingspaceshipsbeginning in 2017.

NASA noted in an earlier report, however, that ISS had enough supplies on hand to maintain its crew through October, even before the Russian cavalry arrived. More supplies arrived with a Russian space cargo ship that reached ISS earlier this month, and perhaps even more on the Soyuz capsule that brought three new astronauts to ISS Thursday. And there's a second docking station in the U.S. that can still be shipped up. So for ISS, the situation is not critical.

The situation for SpaceX may not be as critical as it seemed back in June either.

One day, SpaceX's Dragon 2 space capsule could send NASA astronauts back into space. Assuming SpaceX's rockets stop blowing up, that is. Illustration: SpaceX.

Timing is everythingSpaceX'sCRS-7 disaster came at an especially inconvenient time for SpaceX, occurring just after the company had landed twin "certifications" from U.S. government agencies to operate highly complex space launches that SpaceX had previously been excluded from bidding upon. With the U.S. government planning to spend nearly $25 billion on space launches annually in the coming years, this is a huge opportunity for SpaceX.

Injust two weeks, SpaceX won clearance to run both NASA medium-risk "Category 2" missions, and also Air Force national security launches. However, having just won certification for both, SpaceX naturally has no track record on either of these more advanced missions. The CRS-7 explosion, therefore, would seem to have offered anyone at NASA or the Air Force leery of risking an expensive cargo with SpaceX the perfect excuse to stick with the company's archrival, United Launch Alliance.

Indeed, in a prescient warning made back in April, Air Force Space Command chief Gen. John Hyten commented: "I'm not going to stand up and put a billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket I don't know is going to work." Even more so when there's still the alternative of putting that satellite atop a Boeing or Lockheed Martin rocket -- rockets that ULA has launched 96 timesover the past nine years without any of them blowing up.

SpaceX gets a reprieveBut not to worry, says the U.S. Air Force. CRS-7 notwithstanding, they've still got full confidence in SpaceX. As reported by earlier this month, Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, head of the Space and Missile Systems Center, has confirmed that "the Falcon 9 Launch System remains certified" to perform Air Force national security missions, even after CRS-7.

That means that, once the Air Force finalizes its request for proposals to launch the next GPS III communications satellite (expected this month), SpaceX will be able to bid on the work. Dismissing the SpaceXplosion as a mere "anomaly," Greaves confirmed that nothing has changed about SpaceX's ability to bid on the GPS III.

The upshot for investorsWhen CRS-7 blew up, it was a humbling and costly moment for SpaceX. But the company's working hard to identify the root cause of the explosion, fix it, and make sure it doesn't happen again. With continued backing from two big government agencies, SpaceX will now be given a second chance to prove it's a safe bet to carry America's "billion dollar satellites" into orbit.

Last month was only "strike one" for SpaceX. But let's hope there's no "strike two" when SpaceX resumes launching rockets in September.

Most of the time, SpaceX's rocket launches look like this. Photo: SpaceX, via Elon Musk's Twitter-feed, January 11, 2015.

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