SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Disintegrates In Midair

Image Credit: NASA TV

Image Credit: NASA TV

June 28, 2015 – SpaceX CRS-7 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:21 a.m. EDT today, on the company’s seventh resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). At roughly 139 seconds after launch, the Falcon 9 rocket experienced a critical failure which resulted in total loss of the vehicle. It was an uncrewed resupply mission, so no astronauts were on board.

Prior to launch, the SpaceX team was not tracking any issues. SpaceX will lead the accident investigation with support from NASA and oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration which issued the launch license. Initial data points to a potential issue with the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.

“There was an overpressure event in the upper stage oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted soon after the event. “That’s all we can say with confidence right now.”

The SpaceX Cargo Dragon was carrying more than 4,000 pounds of supplies and payload. It was delivering the first of two international docking adapters that will allow future commercial crew spacecraft, including the SpaceX Crew Dragon, to dock with the ISS.

The capsule also carried critical materials to support more than 30 student research investigations, including three from the Denver area, and more than 35 science and research experiments for Expeditions 44 and 45. The science payloads were designed to offer new insight into combustion in microgravity, perform the first space-based observations of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere, continue solving potential crew health risks, and make new strides towards being able to grow food in space.

NASA will work to replace these items on future cargo flights, and NASA administrator Charles Bolden said there is no immediate impact to station operations.

“We are disappointed in the loss of the latest SpaceX cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station,” said Bolden. “However, the astronauts are safe aboard the station and have sufficient supplies for the next several months.”

A Russian Progress resupply mission will launch on July 3, but Dragon is the only spacecraft that is currently capable of returning a significant amount of supplies back to Earth including live plants and animals, as well as other research experiments. Science operations on the ISS could be significantly affected depending on the length of time it takes SpaceX to complete its investigation and begin launching again.

NASA chose SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to resupply the ISS after the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Today’s failure comes only eight months after the October 28 explosion of an Orbital Science Corp. Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus cargo vehicle. A Russian cargo ship also failed to reach the space station in April of this year.

Only one month ago, the Air Force announced final certification of the Falcon 9 rocket for National Security Space missions, a status that had been held exclusively by Colorado’s United Launch Alliance (ULA). SpaceX has been aggressively pursuing commercial and military markets touting a much lower price tag than ULA, while ULA has cited a long history of safety and reliability.

For now, both Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are grounded, and only the Russian Progress and Japanese HTV remain to carry supplies to the ISS. Orbital plans to launch a Cygnus resupply mission on a ULA Atlas V rocket later this year, and is replacing the Russian-built engines on the first stage of its Antares rocket before resuming its own flights next year.

SpaceX will return to launching cargo to the space station as soon as it is safely possible, but the investigation could last several months.

“We will work with and support SpaceX to assess what happened, understand the specifics of the failure and correct it to move forward,” Bolden said. “This is a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but we learn from each success and each setback. Today’s launch attempt will not deter us from our ambitious human spaceflight program.”

The student experiments on the SpaceX CRS-7 manifest from the Denver area included:

  • Bell Middle School (Golden): Evaluating if vermicomposting in a closed system has the same efficiency in microgravity as it does on Earth.

  • Chatfield Senior High School (Littleton): Establishing the viability of algal hydrogen production in space. Specifically, showing that if algae are removed from the gravitational influence of Earth, it will still produce hydrogen in a sulfur deprived environment.

  • Centaurus High School (Lafayette): Studying the Effects of Simulated Gravity on Bacterial Lag Phase in a Micro-Gravitational Environment.