The man who made his fortune by founding PayPal and once said that he knew as much about rocket science as any engineer who worked for him, is facing fairly flat Champagne tonight at the celebration of his 44th birthday. His SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded shortly after launch today, destroying over 5000 pounds of critical supplies needed by the International Space Station crews, including US astronaut Scott Kelly, who arrived recently. NASA was particularly hoping that this resupply trip would be successful, since the last SpaceX flight was also a failure, and a Russian resupply rocket failed months before that. The space station crew now faces a shortage of supplies by, roughly, October.
The following is an image captured from the NASA telescope video at about two and a half seconds into the flight, at the moment when an explosive plume of gas erupted from the vehicle’s upper stage.
Watch the following video to see the whole flight. Notice that the first stage continues to burn, uninterrupted, for several seconds after the rupture of the upper stage tank farther up the rocket stack.
According to a statement earlier today by Elon Musk, SpaceX Founder, the accident was caused by an “over pressurization” in the liquid oxygen tank of the upper stage. This could be caused by any number of things, including structural failure of the tank, electrical sparks from wiring harnesses or even software bugs that caused events to happen out of the proper sequence.
The next Russian Progress freighter is due to launch July 3 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and its success will be critical, indeed, for the ISS astronauts. The Russian space agency is already discussing the possibility of canceling flights to change out new astronauts, since the criticality of resupply has become such an issue.
It should be pointed out that this is not just an embarrassing failure for Elon Musk and NASA, but for the White House, as well. Current NASA policy, which precipitated the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program and a precarious reliance on two very small commercial contractors (SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp) was directed from the White House against the advice of almost the entire astronaut corps and the non-political talent at NASA.