An unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded a couple of minutes after liftoff Sunday morning. It was the third cargo mission to the space station to be lost in recent months.
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder tweeted Sunday, his 44th birthday, that “there was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank.” He added: “That’s all we can say with confidence right now. Will have more to say following a thorough” analysis.
NASA officials said it was not clear what caused the explosion.
The rocket took off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. at 10:21 a.m., and everything seemed fine for about the first two minutes. Then video of the launch showed harrowing, if now familiar, images of a rocket exploding into a plume of smoke. The Falcon 9 was carrying more than 4,000 pounds of food and supplies to the space station, where American Scott Kelly is spending a year in space. There were no astronauts on board.
The failure follows two earlier mishaps, which had put tremendous pressure on SpaceX to deliver a successful flight. An Orbital Antares rocket blew up in October, and then a Russian Progress 59 spun out of control after reaching orbit. The Orbital failure raised questions about NASA’s bold plan to outsource the cargo resupply mission to contractors in the wake of the space shuttle retirement in 2011.
But before the launch, Stephanie Schierholz, a NASA spokeswoman, said that the station had plenty of supplies on board and that the crew would be fine even if there was another failure.
“They supply the station with all these contingencies in mind,” Schierholz said.
A NASA slide from an April presentation said that with current food levels, the space station would reach what NASA calls “reserve level” on July 24 and run out by Sept. 5, according to SpaceNews.
Schierholz said, however, that the supplies would last until the fall, although she could not provide a precise date. Even if something were to go wrong with the SpaceX flight, she said, there are eight more scheduled this year, including several this summer, “so there are plenty of ways to ensure the station continues to be well-supplied.”
On July 3, the Russians are scheduled to fly another Progress 59 to the station before three more crew members arrive later in the month. Then in August, a Japanese HTV-5 is scheduled to send more supplies, followed by another SpaceX launch in September.
With the explosion, both of the contractors NASA relies on to get critical food and supplies to the space station have now had explosions within eight months of each other.
With the retirement of the space shuttle, NASA lost its ability to fly astronauts from U.S. soil, and has been paying the Russians more than $70 million a seat to fly American astronauts to the station. But NASA hopes to use contractors to end that dependence, and last year awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop a capsules that can carry astronauts to the space station.
That is supposed to happen by 2017, but Congress recently slashed more than $300 million from the program, which Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said would delay the mission by two years. It’s not clear what impact SpaceX’s catastrophic failure on Sunday will have on that program.