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SpaceX Rocket Explosion Raises Questions About Private Space Companies


Sunday's failure of a Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral broke the winning streak of SpaceX, Elon Musk's private space company. SpaceX had been 18-for-18 with Falcon 9 launches, but the rocket, loaded with supplies for the International Space Station, disintegrated just over two minutes after launch, which raises a question. When a government rocket explodes after launch, the government absorbs the cost and the government goes on. What about a private rocket launch? Who absorbs that cost, and can the company's business plan go on? Well, Andy Pasztor is a senior special writer for The Wall Street Journal who writes about aerospace. Thanks for joining us once again.

ANDY PASZTOR: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Is SpaceX about to make a huge insurance claim?

PASZTOR: Not on this launch, for sure. This was a government payload, and the government, as you very well said it, is responsible for the loss. The significant issue facing SpaceX goes much beyond just finding out what happened to this particular rocket and what the cause was and fixing it. They have been trying to ramp up their launch rate. They've been trying to show that they can move into a much higher launch rate than almost anybody in the industry. And this accident has got to hurt them, both from a morale standpoint, but more significantly, it'll slow them down, and it'll put their huge backlog - push it out even further.

SIEGEL: But you say that because this was a government payload headed for the International Space Station that, in fact, the government will absorb the cost of this loss. What exactly was private about this particular rocket launch?

PASZTOR: The private part was the actual launch itself. It was a service purchased by the government from SpaceX. SpaceX gets paid for delivering so many pounds to the space station, and that's it. So the cost to the government, of course, is what was lost on the rocket, which is food and all sorts of other cargo materials and a part of a docking system for future commercial manned launches to the space station. But the cost of what was lost pales next to what the potential costs are for SpaceX if it can't show that it's able to get over this and really continue to launch at the rate that it has promised.

SIEGEL: If there had been people aboard that rocket headed for the space station, I think the coverage would be very different - a lot bigger than it has been. Does this sort of thing set back the whole idea of being a commercial manned space company?

PASZTOR: Well, I think it'll certainly prompt a lot of debate about it, but the U.S., for sure, is far down that path. We don't have any other way to get to the space station at this point, with cargo or with crews, other than these commercial operators. Boeing and SpaceX are in line to start sending up NASA astronauts starting in 2017, if everything works well, so there'll be lots of debate. There'll probably be lots of handwringing, but, in fact, there is no other choice. There's no way to turn back.

SIEGEL: And in the - in the relatively small field of companies that are privately launching rockets, how is SpaceX doing compared to the competition?

PASZTOR: Well, even with the failure on Sunday, they're far ahead of anybody else in this small but growing arena. They have notched many firsts, including the first private entity to orbit a spacecraft around the Earth. And they're far ahead, both in terms of technical achievements and commercial success. They have a $7 billion - that's B as in billion dollar - backlog and so they have lots of business. The question is, can they can deliver on those promises, those contracts, in time to satisfy their customers?

SIEGEL: Andy Pasztor of The Wall Street Journal - Andy, thanks for talking with us once again.

PASZTOR: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.