Unmanned SpaceX Rocket Blows Up During Launch

Looks like something went wrong in the rocket's second stage

[Update 6/28/2015 at 2:13 p.m.]

During a press conference, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said that the explosion may have originated from an overpressurization event in the rocket’s second stage, but they’re still trying to pinpoint the exact cause. The Dragon cargo capsule continued relaying data briefly after the explosion. Although it eventually went up in flames as well, the good news is that if any astronauts had been onboard, the Dragon’s emergency abort system probably would have had time to separate from the rocket, deploy a parachute, and float the crew to safety.

Food, science experiments, a water filtration system, and a docking adapter that would have helped crewed commercial and international partners park at the ISS were all lost in the explosion. Fortunately, the ISS astronauts have enough supplies to last until October, and Boeing has a second docking adapter already built.

NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier said Boeing and SpaceX are still on track to deliver astronauts to the space station by 2017. “We’ll learn from these events,” said Gerstenmaier, “and we’ll get stronger from these events.”

[Update 6/28/2015 at 12:51 p.m.]

It’s a sad day for space exploration. The explosion of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 marks the first launch failure for the private space company, and a loss of millions of dollars in cargo. It is also the third failure in a row in terms of trying to send supplies to the International Space Station, after Russia’s Progress 59 mission malfunctioned in April and an Orbital Sciences rocket exploded last October.

If you missed it, here’s a video of the liftoff and explosion, which takes place around 2:30:

The astronauts onboard the ISS are in no danger of starving. A statement from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says they have enough supplies to last for months, and anyway there’s another resupply mission launching out of Russia next week.

NASA’s not giving up on SpaceX. From Bolden’s statement:

[Update 6/28/2015 at 11:14 a.m.]

Astronaut Scott Kelly was watching the launch (and presumably the explosion) from the International Space Station. “Space is hard,” he tweeted.

[Update 6/28/2015 at 11:00 a.m.]

The explosion of SpaceX’s cargo resupply mission happened right around the time when the rocket’s first stage, which carries the cargo up to a height of about 50 miles, separates from the second stage, which carries the cargo into low Earth orbit. The separation takes place while the rocket is traveling 10 times faster than the speed of sound. It’s not clear yet what went wrong and at what point during the separation, but a press conference this afternoon will hopefully provide more information.

[Update 6/28/2015 at 10:28 am]

Two and a half minutes after liftoff, the rocket and cargo capsule exploded in the sky. NASA and SpaceX are looking into it–we’ll keep you posted as we learn more.

[Update 6/28/2015 at 10:00 a.m.]

After the Falcon 9 and its cargo launch from Cape Canaveral, this little white dot shows where the rocket’s first stage will attempt to land:

As the 14-story rocket stage plummets down at hundreds of miles per hour, SpaceX is hoping for a soft landing aboard this drone ship, which measures just 300 feet by 100 feet, with wings that can extend the landing surface width to 170 feet.

[Update 6/28/2015 at 9:42 a.m.]

NASA tweeted this pic of the adapter that will let Boeing and SpaceX’s manned missions park at the International Space Station:

The thing weighs over 1,000 pounds, and measures about 42 inches tall and 63 inches wide. The International Docking Standard, as it’s named, will theoretically allow any up-to-date spacecraft from any country to dock with the space station.

[Update, 6/28/2015 at 9:08 a.m.]

It’s all systems go so far for a SpaceX launch that could make history. The Falcon 9 rocket is standing at the ready, and a drone ship is bobbing a few hundred miles off the Florida coast, ready to catch the rocket’s first stage when it falls. The launch, scheduled for takeoff at 10:21am EST, will deliver cargo to the International Space Station. After liftoff, if SpaceX can stick the rocket landing, it will pave the way for reusable rockets that could make space travel 100 times cheaper.

Here’s how reusable rockets work:

This diagram from SpaceX has even more details:

For now, when NASA missions launch into space, the first stage of the rocket carries the spacecraft out of Earth’s atmosphere, then typically falls into the ocean, never to be seen again. That’s a waste. To try to recover spent rocket boosters, SpaceX has outfitted its Falcon 9 rockets with a few cool features: cold gas thrusters that flip the rocket around when it’s in orbit, to point it back toward Earth; grid fins, which steer the rocket down to a drone ship in the ocean; and landing legs that unfold as the rocket reaches its destination.

Today’s destination is an unmanned ship named, appropriately, “Of Course I Still Love You”. SpaceX’s first drone ship, “Just Read The Instructions”, was damaged during a landing attempt in April. Hopefully today’s endeavors will be a little less explosive.

During the landing attempt, the Dragon cargo capsule will be on its way to the space station. It’ll be the station’s first resupply mission in several months, after Russia’s Progress 59 resupply ship suffered a malfunction. The situation is not quite dire yet, though—the astronauts on the ISS are stocked with enough supplies to last until October.

The Dragon capsule is carrying 4,300 pounds of food, spare parts, and science experiments, including a pair of HoloLens headsets. With the help of the headsets, NASA’s ground operators will theoretically be able to use holograms to explain to the astronauts how to fix stuff on the space station.

Notably, the mission is also carrying a part that will make it possible for manned missions from Boeing and SpaceX—NASA’s commercial crew partners—to dock with the station. Both companies are aiming to ferry astronauts to the ISS by 2017, with the hopes that NASA won’t have to rely solely on launches out of Russia.

[Original Post, June 25, 2015]

SpaceX will attempt to make history on Sunday. After launching supplies to the International Space Station, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket will separate from the cargo capsule and fall back toward Earth. With any luck, it will touch down softly on a drone ship in the ocean, and usher in a new era of space exploration.

With funding from NASA, the company is working to make rockets reusable. The logic is that you don’t throw out a Boeing 747 after every flight, so why make one-time-use rockets? If the company can find a way to reuse rockets, it could significantly reduce the cost it takes to shuttle people and supplies into space. It’s hard to repurpose a rocket after it’s fallen into the salty Atlantic—which is why the company is working so hard to land the rocket softly and in the upright position.

Sunday will be SpaceX’s third attempt to land the Falcon 9. On the first attempt, in January, SpaceX says the rocket ran out of the hydraulic fluid that steers the fins that help control the rocket’s descent. As a result, the rocket came down too hard:

The second try in April came down slower, but still ended up toppling over:

In this case, a valve that controls the rocket’s thrust grew sluggish near the end of the flight. “With the throttle essentially stuck on “high” and the engine firing longer than it was supposed to,” SpaceX explains, “the vehicle temporarily lost control and was unable to recover in time for landing, eventually tipping over.”

Hopefully the third time’s a charm. The company says they’ve fixed the problems and made changes to be able to compensate for the sticky valve if it happens again.

The launch is scheduled for takeoff at 10:21am Eastern on Sunday, and the historic landing attempt shortly afterwards. You can watch it here.