Breaking News: SpaceX CRS-7 Launch to ISS Fails

Breaking News: SpaceX CRS-7 Launch to ISS Fails

SpaceX’s seventh operational cargo launch to the International Space Station (ISS) ended with an explosion of the Falcon 9 rocket 2:19 minutes into flight today.   Anomaly teams are being assembled.  NASA plans a “contingency press conference” no earlier than 12:30 pm ET.  The exact timing is dependent on when the right people are available to participate and what information has been gleaned.

The countdown for the SpaceX CRS-7 (or SpX-7) mission proceeded perfectly to launch at 10:21 am ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL.  SpaceX and NASA each provided live webcasts of the launch. Suddenly, as operation of the first stage was nearing its end, the vehicle exploded.  The SpaceX webcast went silent, but NASA continued to report on the event.  “Range confirms we’ve had a non-nominal flight,” NASA’s announcer reported, referring to personnel in charge of the Eastern Test Range of which CCAFS is part.  After many minutes, SpaceX’s announcer returned to the air and confirmed “an anomaly during first stage flight,” then ended the webcast.  SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk sent this tweet:

NASA continued with its webcast and reported that experts were reviewing the timeline of the failure to correlate data from the vehicle with data from the Range Safety Officer (RSO) to determine what happened when.   Rockets have Flight Termination Systems that an RSO engages if a rocket goes off course.  It was not clear in the first minutes whether the rocket exploded on its own or whether it deviated from its course and was destroyed by the RSO.

Check back here for more information as it becomes available.

The implications are significant.  Not only is this the third ISS cargo resupply system to fail in the past 8 months (first Orbital’s Antares in October 2014, then Russia’s Progress M-27M in April, now this), but this is the same rocket that SpaceX plans to use for the crew version of its Dragon spacecraft that is one of two competitors chosen by NASA for the final phase of the commercial crew program (Boeing is the other).  That version of Dragon does have an embedded abort system so a crew can escape from the rocket anytime on the ride up to orbit, so a Falcon 9 failure would not necessarily jeopardize a crew, however.

In addition, SpaceX just finally won certification by the Air Force to launch national security satellites using the Falcon 9 based in part on its record of consecutive launch successes (18 before today).  Its battle to win certification, coupled with the contentious debate over how quickly a U.S. alternative to Russia’s RD-180 rocket engines used by one of its competitors, United Launch Alliance (ULA), for the Atlas V rocket, has put the company in the spotlight, pitting entrepreneurial “new space” against established systems like ULA’s.  ULA President Tory Bruno tweeted his condolences:

As the saying goes, launching rockets is hard.   Launch failures are not common, but neither are they entirely surprising. This one is especially significant because of the implications for resupplying the ISS crew after the failures of the other two systems, SpaceX’s role in NASA’s commercial crew program and NASA’s hope to have those systems ready by 2017, and the effort the company expended to obtain certification to launch national security satellites.  Congressional critics of the commercial crew program and SpaceX in particular may be emboldened by the failure, although NASA and its supporters may use it to underscore their argument that two commercial crew systems, not just one, are needed precisely for such a situation so there is redundancy.

SpaceX recently successfully resupplied the 6-member ISS crew and the Russians plan to launch another Progress cargo ship next week (July 3) after concluding the April failure was due to a “design peculiarity.”  Japan also sends cargo to the ISS using its HTV spacecraft.  An HTV is scheduled for launch in August. Orbital ATK is planning to launch its Cygnus cargo spacecraft to ISS using an ULA Atlas V by the end of 2015 (Antares will not be ready for return-to-flight until at least the first quarter of 2016).  So while there are several cargo resupply systems, it is because crew requires a lot of supplies including spare parts.  These spacecraft also send up science experiments for the crew to perform.  Importantly, this mission also was carrying the first of two International Docking Adapters that must be installed onto the space station in order for the commercial crew spacecraft to dock.

Additional SpaceX cargo resupply launches were scheduled for 2015.  How long they will be delayed will depend on what went wrong and what is needed to fix the problem.

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