The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo spaceship dazzled in the moments after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 but were soon doomed to a sudden catastrophic destruction barely two minutes later in the inset photo (left). Composite image includes up close launch photo taken from pad camera set at Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and mid-air explosion photo taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida as rocket was streaking to the International Space Station (ISS) on CRS-7 cargo resupply mission. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – In the span of mere moments, euphoria at the dawn of a dazzling Dragon liftoff atop a commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying critical science, supplies and docking components for NASA’s upcoming crewed spaceships to the International Space Station (ISS), turned to doom and gloom as the Dragon cargo ship disintegrated in mid-air, to the shock of everyone watching under sun drenched skies along the Florida space coast on Sunday, June 28.
By all accounts from NASA and SpaceX and based on new up close imagery from media including myself, the cargo flight on the CRS-7 cargo resupply mission to the ISS began flawlessly, with the nine Merlin 1D engines powering the Falcon 9 rockets first stage firing nominally to produce about 1.3 million pounds of liftoff thrust for nearly their entirely planned duration.
But at approximately 139 seconds into the planned 159 second firing of the first stage engine, the picture perfect blastoff was punctured as the upper part of the vehicle experienced an as yet unexplained anomaly and suddenly exploded, vaporizing into a grayish cloud at supersonic speed and raining debris down into the Atlantic Ocean.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon were destroyed just over two minutes after a stunning liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in sunny Florida at 10:21 a.m. EDT.
On its 19th launch, all of which had previously been fully successful, the rocket was traveling about 5000 km/h at an altitude of 45 kilometers when the mishap took place, coincidentally on the 44th birthday of SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk.
“There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause,” tweeted Musk.
But why that happened and the vehicle disintegrated in mere seconds is still a mystery to be resolved.
“Cause still unknown after several thousand engineering-hours of review. Now parsing data with a hex editor to recover final milliseconds.”
In the meantime, all SpaceX launches including many for NASA as well as commercial customers are on hold indefinitely until the cause is determined and effective corrective actions are taken.
“We do not expect this to have been a first stage issue. We saw some pressurization indications in the second stage, which we’ll be tracking down,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell at a post launch failure media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center.
The next SpaceX cargo Dragon had been scheduled for liftoff in September 2015 on the CRS-8 mission, but is now postponed pending the results of the return to flight investigation.
There are sufficient supplies on board the ISS to keep the crew continuing their mission until at least October 2015.
The CRS-7 mission was critical for NASA in many ways. In addition to the science cargo, the truck section of the SpaceX Dragon was loaded with the first of two International Docking Adapters (IDA’s), that were to be connected to the space station to provide a place for Commercial Crew spacecraft carrying astronauts to dock to the orbiting laboratory as soon as 2017.
NASA’s ISS Space Station manager Mike Suffredini told me at the KSC media briefing the NASA has some parts to build a third IDA to replace the destroyed IDA-1.
The approximately 30 inch thick and ring shaped IDA-1 was stowed in the unpressurized truck section at the rear of the Dragon.
The pressurized section of the Dragon was packed with over 4,000 pounds (1987 kg) of research experiments, an EVA spacesuit, water filtration equipment, spare parts, gear, computer equipment, high pressure tanks of oxygen and nitrogen supply gases, food, water and clothing for the astronaut and cosmonaut crews comprising Expeditions 44 and 45.
These included critical materials for the science and research investigations for the first ever one-year crew to serve aboard the ISS – comprising NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka is also on board to round out the current crew of three spaceflyers.
The science payloads were to offer new insight to 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 toward being able to grow food in space.
Some three dozen student science experiments are also flying aboard. The cargo also included the METEOR astrophotography camera to make the first space-based observations of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere.
Both IDA’s were built by Boeing. They will enable docking by the new space taxis being built by Boeing and Space X – the CST-100 and crew Dragon respectively, to carry our crews to the ISS and end our sole source reliance on the Russian Soyuz capsule.
IDA 1 was to be attached to the forward port on the Harmony node, where the space shuttles used to dock.
CRS-7 was the third launch failure of a cargo delivery run to the space station in the past half year -including both American and Russian rockets.
The cargo ships function as a railroad to space and the lifeline to keep the station continuously crewed and functioning. Without periodic resupply by visiting vehicles the ISS cannot operate.
The Orbital Sciences Antares/Cygnus Orb 3 mission exploded in a massive and frightening fireball on October 28, 2014 which I witnessed from the press site from NASA Wallops in Virginia.
Another Russian Progress vehicle is set to fly on the next resupply mission from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Friday, July 3 (EDT).
“We are disappointed in the loss of the latest SpaceX cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement.
“However, the astronauts are safe aboard the station and have sufficient supplies for the next several months. We will work closely with SpaceX to understand what happened, fix the problem and return to flight. The commercial cargo program was designed to accommodate loss of cargo vehicles. We will continue operation of the station in a safe and effective way as we continue to use it as our test bed for preparing for longer duration missions farther into the solar system.”
“A Progress vehicle is ready to launch July 3, followed in August by a Japanese HTV flight. Orbital ATK, our other commercial cargo partner, is moving ahead with plans for its next launch later this year.”
“SpaceX has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first six cargo resupply missions to the station, and we know they can replicate that success. We will work with and support SpaceX to assess what happened, understand the specifics of the failure and correct it to move forward. 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.”
See a galley of launch and failure explosion photos herein.
Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of the CRS-7 launch from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
antares launch failure, cape canaveral, cargo dragon, charles bolden, commercial resupply services (CRS), CRS, CRS-7, Elon Musk, Falcon 9 rocket explosion, International Space Station (ISS), ISS, kennedy space center press site, NASA, progress launch failure, SpaceX, SpaceX CRS-7