SpaceX Investigators Suggest Its Rocket Was Sabotaged By Its Biggest Competitor

(REUTERS/Joe Skipper)

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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A SpaceX investigation into the recent explosion of one of its rockets has taken an interesting turn — the rocket may have been sabotaged by the company’s biggest competitor.

Investigators attempted to access the roof of a nearby building owned by SpaceX’s business rival, United Launch Alliance (ULA), anonymous industry sources told The Washington Post. ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

SpaceX had still images from video of the explosion that appeared to show unusual activity on the roof of a nearby building belonging to ULA, according to The Post.

ULA denied the SpaceX employee access to the roof, and instead called Air Force investigators, who inspected it, but didn’t find anything connecting it to the rocket explosion.

SpaceX, which was founded by billionaire Elon Musk, and ULA compete over lucrative national security contracts. ULA had a monopoly on those contracts for about a decade since it was the only launch provider certified by the U.S. Air Force.

SpaceX disrupted ULA’s market share, but Musk’s company suffered a major setback in early September when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad. The rocket was carrying a $200 million satellite to provide phone, video and internet services for the Middle East, Europe, and locations across sub-Saharan Africa.

Industry experts believe the explosion could have been caused by anything from a fuel leak, unknown contaminants in the liquid oxygen propellant, or a problem with rocket staging. SpaceX’s billionaire CEO, Elon Musk, will have a harder time finding new clients and is risking a serious financial loss with each new launch, potentially driving customers to ULA and SpaceX’s other business rivals.

The Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) estimated that SpaceX must spend $120 million to replace the lost rocket, factoring in future revenue from reusing the booster and the costs of repairing the launch pad. Owned by beleagured billionaire Musk, the company could also be hit with a $50 million dollar lawsuit from the telecommunications company whose satellite the rocket explosion destroyed. SpaceX declined to tell Forbes if SFF estimates were accurate.

SpaceX rockets have previously exploded several times during landing attempts, which Musk called a “huge blow.” Currently, SpaceX has nine more scheduled launches this year. After the company’s last launch failure, it took nearly six months before Falcon 9 launches were resumed. ULA employees have estimated that it could take up to a full year to resume launches.

SpaceX may not be able to afford to take a year off, as the company currently has $330 million invested in SolarCity, Musk’s rooftop solar company. SolarCity is a sizable investment for SpaceX, which was valued at $12 billion in 2015, leaving the company with little cash on hand and no revenue stream if launches are paused.

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