Last night, SpaceX had another “anomaly” at their Boca Chica, Texas spaceport. Most of us don’t use the word ‘anomaly’ when we see an explosion. We don’t call them Fourth of July ‘anomalies.’ But in the commercial space business, and at the FAA, straight talk reveals too much.
Last night at SpaceX Boca Chica Spaceport:
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As far as rocket explosions go, this one was a baby. Moments after a rocket engine test ended, excess methane fuel ignited in a gigantic fireball that engulfed the test rocket that was stationary on the ground. The fireball completely dwarfed the Starship. Live video shows the all stainless steel Starship still standing today with little activity nearby. It was a ‘minor’ explosion by rocket standards.
Spaceport Camden officials don’t want you to think about such episodes. But anomalies are surprisingly common, especially with new launch vehicles, even if the developer is the much-vaunted SpaceX. In fact, SpaceX has had a major anomaly (explosion) just three months ago where a manned-flight capsule anomalied (exploded) to smithereens at Cape Canaveral. It’s just a coincidence, but SpaceX announced just a day before the Texas anomaly (explosion) that the Canaveral anomaly (explosion) was due to a design flaw.
Boca Chica spaceport is devoid of forests and trees. Spaceport Camden is mostly thousands of acres of forests. Cumberland Island, with ancient maritime forests, is the largest Wilderness Area on the east coast.
When we were first told about Spaceport Camden, Andrew Nelson, Spaceport Camden’s self-described Subject Matter Expert told us that only experienced rockets from experienced companies would launch from Spaceport Camden He claimed that the risk of explosion was less than 1%. He said the rocket fleet was 99.01% safe. Hogwash. Then later, the Draft Environmental Impact Study used a more realistic 2.5% to 6% failure rate for experienced rockets. But Camden is not getting experienced operators like SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, or Northrop Orbital. If any company unwisely comes here, it will be a startup rocket company with little track record of success. Those companies have FAA-defined failure rates of 50% for the first launch and up to 19% through the 10th launch. But only Rocket Lab has launched as many as seven times, and they’ve had one failure. Astra Space has launched twice and failed twice. Exos Aerospace has had three failures out of three launches with the most recent failure a month ago spectacularly scary had it occurred at Spaceport Camden instead of over desert. Firefly, Relativity, and Vector do not have a single licensed launch attempt under their belts. ABL Space, who rented their still vacant warehouse last fall in Saint Marys, has not even shown a non-working mockup of a rocket engine.
Using Spaceport Camden as a “skunkworks” for rocket development and testing is decidedly risky and produces virtually no income. That’s because there are plenty of ready and waiting, safer launch sites that are devoid of forests or launch directly over the ocean. The Draft Environmental Impact Study absurdly ignored any study of fire risk on Harrietts Bluff and Cumberland and Little Cumberland Islands. As the still burning Cumberland Island Whitney fire proves, putting out forest fires in Camden County takes time, a lot of money, and some heavy rain.
Or, we could have student rocket launches: experiments in unguided rocketry where what goes up must come down. Georgia Tech instructors have been major proponents for the spaceport because they think it would be cool to launch in Georgia. But they already do, on farmers’ fields between seasonal crops, and at Huntsville’s amateur rocket facility where students can rub elbows with real NASA scientists. Huntsville is 2 hours closer to the Tech Campus than is Camden.
Camden officials have changed the game while at the same time they insist on keeping the details secret from taxpayers and citizens. In an industry that doesn’t use the term “explosion,” we can only guess about how Spaceport Camden has morphed into an even more dangerous proposition.