An unmanned rocket from Elon Musk’s SpaceX exploded moments after launch, a fresh reminder of the peril in flights that the billionaire entrepreneur wants to transform into routine commercial ventures.
Topped with a Dragon cargo capsule, the Falcon 9 rocket blew up Sunday about 139 seconds into a mission to resupply the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The blast occurred in the craft’s upper-stage liquid-oxygen tank, moments before the main booster was set to separate following takeoff at 10:21 a.m. local time.
“This is a tough day,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, who spoke by video to a press conference held at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Space flight’s not easy.”
An eruption of flame and smoke and a shower of debris marked the Falcon 9’s demise as it roared toward orbit through a clear, deep-blue sky. The craft was about 21 miles (34 kilometers) high when the accident occurred, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.
SpaceX vowed to find the explosion’s cause. “We’re in an extraordinary position to find out what happened and get back to flight as soon as we safely and reliably can,” Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., said at the press briefing. “This doesn’t change our plans.”
It is the second U.S. resupply mission to fail in less than a year, posing a setback for the for-profit flights championed by Musk and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
An Antares rocket launched by Orbital ATK Inc. exploded in a fireball over a Virginia launchpad in October, weeks after NASA’s historic contract award to SpaceX and Boeing Co. to help the U.S. resume manned spaceflight.
The loss also marks the third time an effort to resupply the Space Station failed in the past year. A Russian cargo ship spun out of control in April and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere in May. Another Progress capsule laden with supplies is slated to leave July 3 from Kazakhstan.
“We always assumed we would lose a vehicle every so often,” said Michael Suffredini, NASA’s Space Station program manager, who also spoke at the news conference. “Having three this close together is not what we had hoped for.”
But Suffredini said the Space Station crew has adequate supplies to last at least until October, even without additional flights. There are no plans to delay any flights, he said.
“None of these things calls into question the fundamental question of what NASA’s doing,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. “It does raise the question of how much oversight is needed to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
For all the technological improvements in spaceflight since the Soviet Union lofted its Sputnik I satellite in 1957, the dangerous fundamentals remain the same: cargo and people heading outside Earth’s atmosphere ride atop a tube of volatile rocket fuel whose ignition must be carefully controlled.
“Our thoughts are with the @SpaceX team,” Orbital said in a Twitter message. “We understand getting to space is hard, but very important work. Wishing you a speedy recovery.”
Any delay in NASA’s use of commercial spaceflight for launching astronauts into space would mean that U.S. personnel would still depend on Russia’s Soyuz rockets to reach the International Space Station. The U.S. hasn’t had its own manned launches since NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011.
Sunday’s attempt was the seventh mission for Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to resupply the space station. The company’s space-taxi contract is valued at as much as $2.6 billion.
“We must find the cause of failure,” said SpaceX’s Shotwell, who declined to disclose the cost of the flight. “We must fix it. It’s a reminder of how difficult this is.”
While acknowledging “a pressurization event” in the second stage of the flight, Shotwell said, “I don’t want to speculate as to what happened.”
The investigation of the accident will be conducted by SpaceX with oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration, which issues launch licenses for such flights, said Pam Underwood, the FAA’s deputy division manager for commercial space transportation.
Shotwell said SpaceX has begun a search for debris and will retrieve anything it finds that might be useful in explaining the accident.
SpaceX was certified in May by the U.S. Air Force to compete for military launches with United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp.
“Very sorry to hear of the #CRS7 loss,” United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Officer Tory Bruno said in a Twitter message, using the NASA designation for Sunday’s mission. “Heartbreaking for the men and women who worked on the rocket and its mission. Hang in there SX, NASA.”
Musk, 44, founded SpaceX in 2002 with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. Once considered a long-shot startup, the company has grown to almost 4,000 employees.
The explosion also obscured one of Musk’s goals in commercial flights: holding down costs by guiding the spent booster to a vertical landing on an autonomous barge far in the Atlantic Ocean. Sunday’s launch was to be the third attempt at such a recovery.