The Falcon 9 Fireball Investigation

By: Alex Zapién

On September 1, 2016, the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (better known as SpaceX) lost one of its 70-meter (229-foot-tall) Falcon 9 rockets when it unexpectedly exploded during a simulated countdown on a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida (1). The incident occurred two days before its intended launch, and eyewitness testimonies described the event as “a series of explosions that could be felt for miles” (2).

While the cause of the explosion is unknown, SpaceX Founder, CEO, and Lead Designer Elon Musk believes “an anomaly on the pad” may have occurred when the rocket was being filled with propellant (1). Industry officials say it could take several months to determine the exact cause and even more to take remedial action (2). The rock-
et was unmanned, so there thankfully were no injuries; however, the aftermath of the explosion has worsened the backlog of delayed commercial launches and will likely complicate the company’s pursuit of future government contracts (2). The mishap has also raised questions about the reliability of the Falcon 9 booster, which was slated to haul cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station in the future (3).

SpaceX had been trying to go beyond its mission of solely building revolutionary space technology by also directly aiding in the transportation of Facebook’s six-ton satellite AMOS-6. However, the satellite was also lost in the incident (2). AMOS-6, valued at approximately $200 million, was part of a project led by Facebook, Eutelsat, and Spacecom. Not only would AMOS-6 have been the first satellite Facebook put in orbit, but it would have also provided direct internet access to people in sub-Saharan Africa (4). Following the incident, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressed his frustration, saying he was “deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed [the] satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent” (4). Despite the catastrophic results, Facebook has remained committed to connect everyone worldwide and they are currently developing other technologies that will provide the people of Africa with the same opportunities AMOS-6 would have provided (4).

The explosion of the rocket and its commercial interest also deeply frustrated Elon Musk, sparking him to work for an investigation. On September 9, 2016, more than a week after the incident, Musk openly asked the public and directly asked the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration for help (5). Public responses have proven helpful. Responses include videos of the Falcon 9 rocket explosion, some of which appear to show an object hitting the rocket; however, there is no further evidence to corroborate this. Preliminary results from an investigation have also pointed to a rupture in the cryogenic helium system (6). Overall, the case has proven to be rather perplexing and besides the video evidence, there are no further leads. Musk claims that “this is turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we [SpaceX] have ever had in 14 years.”

As of October 1, 2016, the Falcon 9 investigation has not concluded, but SpaceX has hopes for another launch, a resupply mission to the International Space Station. Dates are tentative, but SpaceX Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell mentioned the “November timeframe” as time to return to space.6 Although focused on addressing the issues behind the anomaly, SpaceX remains committed to its mission of revolutionizing space technology and serving the world.

Alex Zapién ‘19 is a sophomore in Cabot House, concentrating in physics.


[1] Malik, Tariq. Scientific American. (accessed Sep. 29, 2016).

[2] Pasztor, Andy. The Wall Street Journal. (accessed Sep. 29, 2016).

[3] Chang, Kenneth et al. The New York Times Science. (accessed Sep. 30, 2016).

[4] Letzter, Rafi. Business Insider: Science. (accessed Sep. 30, 2016).

[5] Cofield, Calla. Space. (accessed Sep. 30, 2016).

[6] Mack, Erick. News Atlas. (accessed Oct. 1, 2016).

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