Falcon 9 Rocket Failure a Huge Blow to SpaceX: Musk

In his first public comments since the surprise disintegration of the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket some two minutes after last week’s liftoff on June 28, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said today (July 7) that the launch failure was a “huge blow” to his company and the cause remains elusive and is under intense investigation.

“The accident was a huge blow to SpaceX,” Musk told the opening session of the International Space Station Research & Development Conference being held in Boston, Mass, during an on-stage conversation with NASA’s International Space Station manager Mike Suffredini.

The private SpaceX Falcon 9 booster broke up just minutes after a picture perfect blastoff from Cape Canaveral on a crucial logistics flight for NASA, carrying a SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter that was headed to the International Space Station (ISS).

Dragon was chock full of over two tons of research experiments and much needed supplies and gear for the multinational crews serving aboard.

“There’s still no clear theory that fits with all the data,” Musk said. “We take these missions incredibly seriously.”

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 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.

The upper stage of the rocket suddenly exploded due to an as yet unexplained anomaly as the nine first stage Merlin 1D engines kept firing. Moments later it vaporized into a grayish cloud at supersonic speed, raining debris down into the Atlantic Ocean.

Although the second stage appears to be the culprit in the disaster, Musk said that there is still not a coherent cause and explanation of the data and was hard to interpret.

“Whatever happened is clearly not a sort of simple, straightforward thing,” he explained. “In this case, the data does seem to be quite difficult to interpret.”

“So we want to spend as much time as possible just reviewing the data. No clear theory fits all the data.”

The Falcon 9 was transmitting data on over 3,000 channels of flight data streams.

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
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

Virtually since the moment of the mishap approximately 139 seconds after the otherwise successful launch, SpaceX engineers have been pouring over the data to try and determine the root cause of the accident.

“Everyone that can engage in the investigation at SpaceX is very, very focused on that,”Musk elaborated. “We want to spend as much time as possible just reviewing the data.”

From the beginning Musk indicated that there was some type of over pressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank and he elaborated a bit at the conference.

“At this point, the only thing that’s really clear was there was some kind of over-pressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank, but the exact cause and sequence of events, there’s still no clear theory that fits with all the data.”

“So we have to determine if some of the data is a measurement error of some kind, or if there’s actually a theory that matches what appear to be conflicting data points.”

SpaceX is conducting an intense and thorough investigation with the active support of various government agencies including the FAA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

“The interaction with NASA has been great so far,” Musk said. “The biggest challenge is that there are a lot of inquiries coming in simultaneously, so it’s hard to keep responding to everyone right away.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply spaceship explode about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply spaceship explode about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The accident investigation is in full swing both at the Cape and SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Ca.

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX VP of Mission Assurance, is leading the accident investigation for SpaceX.

“The process for determining the root cause of Sunday’s mishap is complex, and there is no one theory yet that is consistent with the data,” SpaceX spokesman John Taylor told me earlier.

“Our engineering teams are heads down reviewing every available piece of flight data as we work through a thorough fault tree analysis in order to identify root cause.”

Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch  from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The June 28 launch was the 19th overall for the Falcon 9 booster and the first failure in an otherwise hugely successful program by the new space company founded by Musk and headquartered in Hawthorne, CA. Musk’s oft stated goals include radically slashing the cost of access to space to enable much wider participation in the space frontier by entrepreneurs and individuals and foster much greater exploration that will aid human missions to the Red Planet.

SpaceX may have more to say publicly later this week.

“I think we’ll be able to say something more definitive towards the end of the week,” Musk noted.

In the meantime all SpaceX launches are on hold for several months at least.

The SpaceX CRS-7 cargo launch failure was the second of two back to back cargo delivery launch failures run to the space station, including both American and Russian rockets since April, and the third in the past eight months that significantly crimped the stations stockpiles and abruptly impacted upcoming crew rotations and launches throughout the remainder of 2015.

Fortunately, the string of launch failures with the successful launch the Russian Progress 60 cargo freighter on July 3, five days after the SpaceX CRS-7 failure. Progress 60 docked at the ISS on July 5 with three tons of supplies, to the relief of the station partners worldwide.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Mike Suffredini,  NASA International Space Station manager and Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX VP of Mission Assurance discuss Space CRS-7 mission to the ISS at media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mike Suffredini, NASA International Space Station manager and Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX VP of Mission Assurance discuss SpaceX CRS-7 mission to the ISS at media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Russian Progress Supply Freighter Docks at Space Station, Ending String of International Launch Failures

Over three tons of much needed supplies and equipment finally reached the crew living aboard the International Space Station (ISS), when an unmanned and highly anticipated Russian Progress cargo ship successfully docked at the orbiting outpost early this morning, Sunday July 5, at 3:11 a.m. EDT (10:11 MSK, Moscow local time)- to all the partners relief.

This follows two straight international resupply launch failures that significantly crimped the stations stockpiles and abruptly impacted upcoming crew rotations and station launches throughout the remainder of 2015.

Today’s arrival of Russia’s Progress 60 (Progress M-28M) logistics vehicle ended a string of Russian and American resupply mission failures that began some two months ago with the devastating Soyuz rocket launch failure of the prior Progress 59 ship on April 28, and continued with the mid-air explosion of a commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 and unpiloted SpaceX Dragon CRS-7 cargo ship exactly one week ago on June 28.

The Progress 60 was automatically docked at an earth facing port on the Russian “Pirs” docking module on the Russian segment of the ISS – that finally puts the station on the road to recovery with a stockpile of 6100 pounds (2770 kg) of new fuel, food, oxygen, research experiments and gear.

“The operation was carried out in an automated mode,” according to Russian Mission Control near Moscow.

The docking operation was conducted under the guidance of the Russian ISS Expedition 44 commander Gennady Padalka and flight engineer Mikhail Kornienko as well as experts at the Russian Mission Control Center, as the vehicles were soaring about 251 miles (400 km) over the south Pacific, southeast of New Zealand. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is also aboard, rounding out the current three man crew.

The ISS Progress 60 cargo craft is seen just a few minutes away from docking to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV
The ISS Progress 60 cargo craft is seen just a few minutes away from docking to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV

The successful docking came two days after the blastoff of the unmanned Progress 60 cargo freighter atop a Soyuz-U booster from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 3. This signifies the restoration of Russia’s critical cargo lifeline to the ISS and was like celebrating Christmas in July.

“Guys, congratulations. your cargo vehicle has arrived,” said Russian flight director Vladimir Solovyev from Russian mission control.

“We congratulate you as well,” cosmonaut Gennady Padalka replied from inside the station’s Russian-built Zvezda command module. “Thanks so much for sending it our way. It feels like Christmas in July.”

The station is totally dependent on a regular train of supply runs from the partner nations on Earth to operate with a crew and conduct research investigations that will aid in sending humans to deep space destinations.

The ISS Progress 60 cargo craft is now docked to the Pirs docking compartment. Credit: NASA TV
The ISS Progress 60 cargo craft is now docked to the Pirs docking compartment shown in this schematic. Credit: NASA TV

America’s cargo lifeline is currently on hold following the dual launch failures of both US commercial supply trains to low Earth orbit- involving the SpaceX Falcon 9 last week and the catastrophic Orbital ATK Antares/Cygnus Orb-3 mission launch disaster on October 28, 2014 which I saw at NASA Wallops.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon exploded barely two minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral. The rocket disintegrated in mere moments as I watched from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

All told, an unprecedented trio of launch failures with three different American and Russian rockets took place over the past eight months.

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
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

Progress 60 resupply ship was loaded with over three tons of food, fuel, oxygen, science experiments, water and supplies on a crucial mission for the International Space Station crew to keep them stocked with urgently needed life support provisions and science experiments in the wake of the twin launch failures in April and June.

The ISS Progress M-28M (Progress 60) cargo craft is seen just a few minutes away from successful docking to the International Space Station. Credit: Roscosmos
The ISS Progress M-28M (Progress 60) cargo craft is seen just a few minutes away from successful docking to the International Space Station. Credit: Roscosmos
The ship delivered approximately 1,146 pounds (520 kg) of propellant, 105 pounds (48 kg) of oxygen, 926 pounds (420 kg) of water and 3,071 pounds (1393 kg) pounds of crew supplies, provisions, research equipment, science experiments, student experiments, tools and spare parts and parcels for the crew.

The Progress was stuffed with 100 kg of additional food stocks to make up for the losses suffered from the twin Russian Progress 59 and SpaceX CRS-7 failures.

“As for food, 430 kilos of foodstuffs will be delivered to the ISS or 100 kilos more than the amount delivered by the previous spacecraft,” noted Mission Control.

“The Progress space freighter will deliver more food than usual so that it will suffice for everyone,” Alexander Agureyev, chief of the ISS crew nourishment department at the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems, told the Russian news agency TASS.

Progress 60 is scheduled to remain docked to Pirs for the next four months.

In the wake of the trio of American and Russian launch failures, the crew currently enjoys only about four months of reserves compared to the more desirable six months stockpile in case of launch mishaps.

Progress 60 will extend the station supplies by about a month’s time.

The next cargo ship now slated to launch is the Japanese HTV-5 on August 16.

Blastoff of the Russian Progress 60 resupply ship to the ISS from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 3, 2015. Credit: Roscosmos
Blastoff of the Russian Progress 60 resupply ship to the ISS from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 3, 2015. Credit: Roscosmos

The SpaceX CRS-7 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.

The Dragon was also packed with the first of two new International Docking Adapters (IDS’s) required for the new commercial crew space taxis being built by Boeing and SpaceX to dock at the ISS starting in 2017.

The next crewed launch to the station is set for July 22 aboard a Soyuz capsule with with an international trio comprising NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, Oleg Kononenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency and Kimiya Yui of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Their flight was delayed from May 26 after the Progress 59 launch failure to ensure that there are no issues with the Soyuz rocket booster that will boost them to the ISS.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Russian Progress Launch Restores Critical Cargo Lifeline to Space Station

Blastoff of the Russian Progress 60 resupply ship to the ISS from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 3, 2015. Credit: Roscosmos
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A sigh of relief was heard worldwide with today’s (July 3) successful launch to orbit of the unmanned Progress 60 cargo freighter atop a Soyuz-U booster from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, signifying the restoration of Russia’s critical cargo lifeline to the International Space Station (ISS), some two months after the devastating launch failure of the prior Progress 59 spaceship on April 28.

Friday’s triumphant Progress launch also comes just five days after America’s cargo deliveries to the ISS were put on hold following the spectacular failure of a commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from the Florida Space Coast on Sunday, June 28, carrying the unpiloted SpaceX Dragon CRS-7 which broke up in flight.

The Progress 60 resupply ship, also known as Progress M-28M, was loaded with over three tons of food, fuel, oxygen, science experiments, water and supplies on a crucial mission for the International Space Station crew to keep them stocked with urgently needed life support provisions and science experiments in the wake of the twin launch failures in April and June.

The Soyuz-U carrier rocket launched Progress into blue skies at 10:55 a.m. local time in Baikonur (12:55 a.m. EDT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The launch was webcast live on NASA TV.

“Everything went by the book,” said NASA commentator Rob Navias during the webcast. “Everything is nominal.”

The ISS Progress 60 resupply ship streak to orbit after on time launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 3, 2015. Credit: Roscosmos
The ISS Progress 60 resupply ship streak to orbit after on time launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 3, 2015. Credit: Roscosmos

The International Space Station was flying about 249 miles over northwestern Sudan, near the border with Egypt and Libya, at the moment of liftoff. Note: See an exquisite photo of the Egyptian pyramid photographed from the ISS in my recent story – here.

After successfully separating from the third stage Progress reach its preliminary orbit less than 10 minutes after launch from Baikonur and deployed its solar arrays and navigational antennas as planned.

Live video was received from Progress after achieving orbit showing a beautiful view of the Earth below.

A camera from the Progress spacecraft shows the Earth below as it begins its two day trip to the space station. Credit: NASA TV
A camera from the Progress spacecraft shows the Earth below as it begins its two day trip to the space station. Credit: NASA TV

A two day chase of 34 orbits of Earth over the next two days will bring the cargo craft to the vicinity of the station for a planned docking to the Russian segment of the orbiting laboratory at 3:13 a.m. Sunday, July 5.

NASA TV will provide live coverage of the arrival and docking operation to the Pirs Docking Compartment starting at 2:30 a.m. EDT on Sunday, July 5.

Watch live on NASA TV and online at http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka are currently living and working aboard the station as the initial trio of Expedition 44 following the safe departure and landing of the three person Expedition 43 crew in mid June.

Kelly and Kornienko comprise the first ever 1 Year Crew to serve aboard the ISS and are about three months into their stay in space.

In the span of just the past eight months, three launches of unmanned cargo delivery runs to the space station have failed involving both American and Russian rockets.

The cargo ships function as a railroad to space and function as the lifeline to keep the station continuously crewed and functioning. Without periodic resupply by visiting vehicles from the partner nations the ISS cannot continue to 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.

The Russian Soyuz/Progress 59 mission failed after the cargo vessel separated from the Soyuz booster rockets third stage and spun wildly out of control on April 28, 2015 and eventually crashed weeks later during an uncontrolled plummet back to Earth over the ocean on May 8. The loss was traced to an abnormal third stage separation event.

Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, switched this Progress vehicle to an older version of the Soyuz rocket which had a different third stage configuration that was not involved in the April failure.

The ISS Progress 60 resupply ship launches on time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: NASA TV
The ISS Progress 60 resupply ship launches on time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: NASA TV

Russian officials decided to move up the launch by about a month from its originally planned launch date in August in order to restock the station crew with critically needed supplies as soon as practical.

Following Sundays SpaceX cargo launch failure, the over 6100 pounds of new supplies on Progress are urgently needed more than ever before. Loaded aboard are 1,146 pounds (520 kg) of propellant, 105 pounds (48 kg) of oxygen, 926 pounds (420 kg) of water and 3,071 pounds (1393 kg) pounds of crew supplies, provisions, research equipment, science experiments, tools and spare parts and parcels for the crew.

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
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

In the wake of the trio of American and Russian launch failures, the crews current enjoy only about four month of supplies reserves compared to the more desirable six months stockpile in case of launch mishaps.

Progress 60 will extend the station supplies by about a month’s time.

The SpaceX CRS-7 Dragon was loaded 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 Kelly and Kornienko.

The Dragon was also packed with the first of two new International Docking Adapters (IDS’s) required for the new commercial crew space taxis to dock at the ISS starting in 2017.

The three cargo launch failures so close together are unprecedented in the history of the ISS program over the past two decades.

The next cargo ship now slated to launch is the Japanese HTV-5 on August 16.

Antares descended into hellish inferno after first stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares descended into hellish inferno after first stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer