SpaceX could return to flight Dec. 16, satellite launch customer says

SpaceX could return to flight in about two weeks, pending Federal Aviation Administration approval, after an explosion that destroyed one of its rockets, satellite launch customer Iridium Communications Inc. said Thursday.

The tentative date comes three months after one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets exploded on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, destroying a commercial communications satellite that was to be managed by Israeli satellite operator Spacecom.

The fiery failure caused delays in SpaceX’s launch schedule and led to criticism from some members of Congress of the company’s role in leading the investigation.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk has described the cause of the explosion as something that has “never been encountered before in the history of rocketry.”

Iridium, a McLean, Va., satellite communications company, said 10 of its satellites could launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Dec. 16 at 12:36 p.m. Pacific time from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Iridium said it expected to be SpaceX’s first launch customer since the explosion.

“We have remained confident in SpaceX’s ability as a launch partner throughout the Falcon 9 investigation,” Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch said in a statement. “We are grateful for their transparency and hard work to plan for their return to flight.”

Under federal law, SpaceX is allowed to conduct its own investigation with FAA oversight. SpaceX’s accident investigation team for this incident includes NASA, the Air Force and other industry experts.

Before a launch operator can return to flight after a mishap, the FAA must approve that the recommended fix addresses the cause of the problem. It also must give approval of the launch, which is standard for all launches that occur.

In September, 10 Republican members of Congress sent a letter to the heads of the Air Force, NASA and the FAA questioning whether SpaceX should be allowed to lead its own investigation into the explosion. Many of the congressmen who signed the letter represent states where SpaceX competitor United Launch Alliance has operations.

In the Iridium statement, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the Hawthorne company, whose full name is Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is “looking forward to return to flight” with the Iridium launch.

Musk said last month that the company could start launching again in mid-December.

In an interview on CNBC, Musk said SpaceX thought it had “gotten to the bottom of the problem.”

An investigation into the cause of the explosion is still ongoing, though the company has narrowed its focus to one of three composite-overwrapped pressure vessels that hold helium in the rocket’s second-stage liquid oxygen tank.

In October, SpaceX said it could re-create a failure in the vessel “entirely through helium loading conditions,” suggesting this could be a cause of the explosion.

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

For more business news, follow me @smasunaga

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UPDATES:

12:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional context about the SpaceX explosion.

This article was originally published at 8:55 a.m.

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