Anyone interested in space exploration — and businesses supporting such endeavors — will be watching closely in the days and weeks ahead for the impact of a failed SpaceX mission to resupply the International Space Station.
Mission-backers had looked forward to a successful resupply mission by the Hawthorne, Calif.-based space contractor to boost the ISS’ public profile. Most prelaunch speculation revolved around whether a planned barge landing by the mission’s Falcon 9 rocket would succeed for the first time.
As things turned out for the June 28 mission, the unmanned SpaceX rocket exploded just over two minutes after it launched, and that meant the simultaneous break up and disintegration of the spacecraft’s Dragon cargo capsule carrying ISS supplies. The mission was SpaceX’s seventh under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services Contract.
The rocket failure “shows the challenges facing engineering and the challenges facing space flight in general,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, during a press conference at Kennedy Space Center following the launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. (video below)
Though cause of the mishap was still being probed, it was clear there was “no negligence” involved, Gerstenmaier said. NASA officials praised the performance of the SpaceX team during the launch.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who owns SpaceX, tweeted shortly after the rocket launch there had been an “overpressure event in the upper-stage liquid-oxygen tank.”
Twitter updates from Musk:
Cause still unknown after several thousand engineering-hours of review. Now parsing data with a hex editor to recover final milliseconds.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 29, 2015
Expect to reach preliminary conclusions regarding last flight by end of week. Will brief key customers & FAA, then post on our website.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 6, 2015
That second-stage event will be probed further to determine if it caused the explosion. NASA, SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Administration were coordinating efforts in the post-launch investigation.
“All indications say that this was not a first-stage issue,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX.
The resupply mission had aimed to deliver more than two tons of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station, including a new docking adapter and parts required for various experiments. The latter included a much-publicized planned test of high-tech goggles from Microsoft.
NASA’s Gerstenmaier said the space agency would consider moving up a planned December launch of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo capsule to October. The ISS crew has sufficient food and water despite the failed resupply attempt, officials stressed.
There are just three crewmembers — two Russians and one American, Scott Kelly — aboard the ISS currently following the return of three others earlier this month. The returned crewmembers are set to be replaced in a mission scheduled for next month.
SpaceX’s failed resupply mission was the first attempt at a robotic cargo delivery since April, when a Russian capsule malfunctioned and resulted in the loss of a three-ton payload. The multinational ISS mission already has been the source of funding flaps in Congress, and project advocates will worry that the latest resupply failure could heighten tensions.
Gerstenmaier said the primary immediate impact to the ISS was the loss of momentum on its planned science experiments.
“This was a blow to us,” he said. “We lost a lot of research equipment on this flight.”
Another big part of the SpaceX mission involved plans to land the Rocket 9 aboard a barge for the first time following previous failed attempts. Many believe barge landings for spacecraft would be more cost-effective and carry various other benefits in comparison to ocean or desert landings.
SpaceX plans to launch its first manned rocket in 2017. Officials said there was no immediate reason to believe that timeline would be hampered by the latest unmanned rocket failure.