Falcon 9 Explodes After Launch

Falcon 9 Explosion

Image courtesy of NASA

Falcon 9 Explodes After Launch
| published June 28, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

A SpaceX cargo rocket ferrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded and broke apart about two and a half minutes into its flight on Sunday. The unmanned spacecraft had launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and all flight indicators were good right up to the point when the rocket began to break apart.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon payload craft were shuttling more than 5000 pounds of critical cargo up to the ISS, including water and food, replacement hardware, fresh batteries, new spacesuits, and a new water filtration system. Also on board the destroyed rocket: an expensive new docking collar created to accommodate scores of future missions and commercial activity. Though the other supplies and materials can be easily replaced (the current crew has plenty of water and food), that docking system cost millions to produce, and may cause a short term setback to NASA’s near future plans for the Space Station.

The Sunday explosion marks the third time in the last year that NASA has lost a resupply or cargo rocket.

The Falcon 9 had reached an altitude of approximately 27 miles (two minutes and thirty seconds into the flight) when it began to break apart. The rocket’s velocity was 2900 miles per hour—precisely the speed it was programmed to reach at that moment—when the break-up and explosion occurred, according to statements from NASA and SpaceX. The Dragon capsule continued to transmit data well after the break-up and explosion, a certain sign that the smaller Dragon component remained electronically stable even as it began to break apart and fall to Earth.

SpaceX released a short statement later in the day explaining that its own initial analysis showed only that pressure had built up to a critical level inside the upper stage liquid-oxygen tank—part of the propulsion system. Both SpaceX and NASA hope to release a more detailed explanation of the accident this week.

This week’s disaster may prove to be a major setback for NASA, which has faced a long series of problems during the last year. In October 2014, an Orbital Systems rocket and capsule was destroyed on the launch pad in Virginia seconds after its launch. The Orbital Systems Antares rocket experienced a catastrophic failure seconds after launch control, and flight engineers were forced to implement the self-destruct mechanism. That disaster—which caused no injuries—cost NASA hundreds of millions of dollars when a variety of expensive equipment, classified hardware and ISS supplies were destroyed.

The Antares rocket which was destroyed in October was powered by a Russian engine built in the Soviet era of space travel. SpaceX used a new engine of its own design, crafted to be more powerful, and incorporating more efficient technologies.

In the meantime other countries have their own resupply missions scheduled, including a Japanese launch scheduled for late August, and a Russian mission later this week. SpaceX says it will resolve the problem and be ready for its own mission later in the year.

Related Thursday Review articles:

NASA Parachute Testing; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; May 30, 2015.

The View From Above; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; March 3, 2015.