A SpaceX Rocket Exploded Before Launch at Cape Canaveral

Smoke rises from a SpaceX launch site Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, at Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA said SpaceX was conducting a test firing of its unmanned rocket when a blast occurred.

Smoke rises from a SpaceX launch site Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, at Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA said SpaceX was conducting a test firing of its unmanned rocket when a blast occurred. Marcia Dunn/AP

This could be a major setback for Elon Musk’s space company.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in what could be a major setback for Elon Musk’s space company.

Eyewitnesses and local media are reporting a series of explosions that shook nearby buildings and left the rocket in flames, with emergency crews rushing to the launchpad.

“SpaceX can confirm that in preparation for today’s static fire, there was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload,” the company said in a statement. “Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries.”

The rocket was preparing to launch an Israeli communications satellite, Amos 6, into space Sept. 3. SpaceX typically test-fires its rocket engines ahead of a launch like this, and initial speculation is that something went wrong while preparing for that procedure. Its statement suggests the satellite, which weighs 5.5 tons and cost more than $100 million to manufacture, was indeed lost in the explosion.

The description of an “anomaly on the pad,” rather than in the rocket, suggests the explosion was caused by some kind of ground infrastructure. SpaceX introduced a new fueling system this year that led to several delayed launches as the kinks were worked out.

SpaceX has only lost one previous rocket during a flight, when a cargo mission to the International Space Station exploded in July of 2015. The six-month delay while the problem was isolated and fixed cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. So far in 2016, the company had hit all of its launch goals and set a new annual launch record with a successful flight in mid-August.

The explosion comes at a difficult time for SpaceX. Executives hoped the Falcon 9 rocket—and its lucrative launch business—would continue operating reliably while the company tested a reusable rocket and its new Falcon Heavy rocket before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is racing Boeing to be the first private company to fly humans into space with its Dragon 2 spacecraft, and had expected to begin rigorous testing in early 2017.

A lengthy return to flight process would pull engineering and financial resources away from these new projects, and likely mean a new process to convince clients like NASA and satellite-maker SES of the company’s reliability.

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