Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s aim to transport astronauts aboard commercial spacecraft was set back Sunday when one of his unmanned cargo rockets exploded in a fireball minutes after launch.
The disintegration of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket – the latest reminder that there’s no such thing as a routine voyage to space for man or machine – was the third fiery demise of a vehicle ferrying supplies to the International Space Station since October. SpaceX and Federal Aviation Administration officials are investigating what went wrong in the rocket’s final seconds.
Cargo missions like Sunday’s attempt are part of a NASA quest to open up spaceflight to commercial ventures, with the debut of astronaut trips on private craft operated by SpaceX and Boeing Co. to follow later this decade. The explosion also prevented a cost-savings attempt at guiding the rocket’s spent booster to a vertical landing on an unmanned platform bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean.
“Cause still unknown after several thousand engineering hours of review,” Musk said on Twitter. “Now parsing data with a hex editor to recover final milliseconds.”
For all the technological improvements in spaceflight since the Soviet Union lofted the Sputnik I satellite in 1957, the dangerous fundamentals remain the same: cargo and people heading outside Earth’s atmosphere ride atop a tube of volatile rocket fuel whose ignition must be carefully controlled.
Sticking to Plan
For now, National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials are sticking to plans for astronauts flying on U.S. spacecraft rather than Russia’s Soyuz rockets by 2017, William Gerstenmaier, the agency’s associate administrator for human explorations and operations, told reporters Sunday. The U.S. hasn’t operated manned launches since NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011.
An investigation into the Falcon 9’s explosion may yield design improvements that make future rockets safer and more reliable. “We’re going to learn more and come back stronger,” Gerstenmaier said.
SpaceX’s President Gwynne Shotwell said the company expects to root out the cause quickly because it manufactures the rocket and all the major components, so outside suppliers won’t be involved in the investigation.
Federal regulators should move deliberately before certifying the Boeing and SpaceX capsules to carry humans into orbit, said Marco Caceres, director of space studies with Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant.
“It’s not a bad idea to slow this process down as much as possible because things happen,” Caceres said. “This is not going to be the last time you have a failure.”
An eruption of flame and smoke and a shower of debris marked the Falcon 9’s demise as it roared toward orbit through a clear, deep-blue sky. The craft was about 21 miles (34 kilometers) high when the accident occurred, NASA said.
The blast occurred in the craft’s upper-stage liquid-oxygen tank, moments before the main booster was set to separate following takeoff at 10:21 a.m. local time.
An Antares rocket launched by Orbital exploded in a fireball over a Virginia launchpad in October, weeks after NASA’s contract award to SpaceX and Boeing.
A Russian cargo ship attempting to resupply the space station spun out of control in April and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere in May. Another Progress capsule laden with supplies is slated to leave July 3 from Kazakhstan.
There doesn’t appear to be any common theme behind the rash of failed missions, aside from the thin margin between success and catastrophe for rocket launches, NASA officials said.
“We did expect to lose some cargo vehicles,” Gerstenmaier said. “We didn’t think we’d lose them all in a one-year timeframe.”
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