It was a beautiful day on the cape, sunny and hot with patchy clouds — good weather for rocketry. SpaceX’s unmanned Falcon 9 rocket looked great as it tore a hole in the sky, propelling 4,000 pounds of cargo in a Dragon capsule toward the International Space Station.
NASA’s Twitter account offered the play-by-play: “And we have liftoff of @SpaceX #ISScargo resupply mission to the @Space_Station.”
Two minutes later, Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 blew up like a bottle rocket. Food, supplies, hardware and dozens of student science experiments rained to the sea off the Florida coast.
“Something went wrong with the launch,” NASA tweeted. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who is spending a year in space, tweeted from orbit a universal truth: “Space is hard.”
Rocket explosions are nothing new in the Space Age, but this one instantly reverberated across the U.S. space community Sunday. No one was aboard this time, but the privately owned and operated Dragon capsule is being designed so it can carry astronauts in the future. Moreover, this was the third cargo mission to the space station to have a catastrophic failure since October — and the second in a row.
“Having three this close together is not what we had hoped for,” Michael Suffredini, NASA’s space station program manager, said in a news conference.
The timing of the latest explosion was terrible for SpaceX, NASA and the Obama administration more broadly. The administration has been counting on SpaceX, founded by the tech titan Musk, to play a key role in a new strategy that relies on commercial contracts to put cargo, and eventually astronauts, into orbit.
Musk is the most prominent figure in the “New Space” movement, which seeks to make space travel cheaper and more accessible to ordinary people. New Space companies style themselves as entrepreneurial and innovative, in contrast to the plodding nature of the NASA bureaucracy and its traditional cost-plus contracts with huge aerospace companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
“This doesn’t change our plans. Our customers have always been loyal,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer, said in the joint news conference with NASA. “It’s a hiccup. It’s certainly a time to pause and make sure we’re doing everything we need to do.”
Until now, Musk and SpaceX seemed to have a magic touch. With a fortune from his efforts as a founder of PayPal, Musk started SpaceX with a dream of colonizing Mars in his lifetime. He has had success with his electric-car company, Tesla. He aggressively and successfully challenged the Air Force to let SpaceX bid on national security launches.
Bold as his rhetoric has been, he has been able to back it up with an astonishing string of successful ventures on Earth and in space. SpaceX had a track record of seven successful flights to the station.
Sunday was a setback.
“It may drain a bit of enthusiasm about the whole New Space movement,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. He said Musk’s flamboyant style ensures that SpaceX is judged more critically than other companies that also have had failures in the launch business. “It will take some of the glow off of the company. It makes them, if you want, more normal,” Logsdon said.
James Kohlenberger, a former chief of staff in the White House science adviser’s office who helped devise the commercial-crew strategy, said the explosion did not diminish the wisdom of betting on the New Space innovators for getting Americans launched again from U.S. soil.
“My sense is it will be an opportunity to learn more, dust ourselves off, get back up and set our sights higher,” Kohlenberger said.
John “Danny” Olivas, a former NASA astronaut who is the director of the University of El Paso’s Center for the Advancement for Space Safety and Mission Assurance Research, agreed that SpaceX would rebound. But the failure also “demonstrated that SpaceX is every bit as open to the failings that ultimately come of human engineering. Sometimes things are missed. And today something was missed.”
NASA put up a brave face Sunday, vowing to forge ahead. Kelly and the two Russian astronauts on the space station are not in danger, and NASA officials said Sunday that the astronauts have sufficient food and water and other basic supplies to last until October. Another cargo mission, using a Russian Progress vehicle, is scheduled for Friday. Three more astronauts are supposed to join the current crew via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft later in July.
In August, a Japanese HTV-5 cargo vehicle is scheduled to send more supplies. That would have been followed by another SpaceX launch in September, though Sunday’s explosion is sure to postpone that.
This latest launch failure could influence NASA’s schedule for sending American astronauts back into space on American spacecraft. NASA has not been able to put Americans into space with American hardware since the shuttle fleet was retired in 2011. The United States relies now entirely on the Russians to get to and from the space station, paying more than $70 million a seat to fly American astronauts.
This gap in launch capability was long in the making. More than a decade ago, after the space shuttle Columbia disaster, the George W. Bush administration and Congress decided to retire the shuttle fleet and direct NASA to focus on deep-space exploration, including a return to the moon.
President Obama killed the moon program and also spiked a Bush-sanctioned, NASA-owned rocket that could launch astronauts to the space station. Instead, Obama and NASA have gone the commercial route.
SpaceX and Dulles-based Orbital ATK won contracts to carry cargo to the station. Then last year, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop capsules that can carry astronauts to the space station, with the first such mission scheduled for December 2017.
Politics may confound that. Congress recently slashed more than $300 million from the administration’s budget request for the commercial crew program. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said the cuts would delay the mission by two years. And that was before Sunday’s SpaceX failure.
Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said Sunday that this is not the first time there’s been a launch failure, and “it won’t be the last time. I think we need to be patient, conduct the investigation and get back flying. I don’t think we have a choice.”
With Sunday’s launch failure, both U.S. space-cargo contractors, SpaceX and Orbital, have had rockets blow up. Orbital’s Antares rocket exploded in October, just seconds after lifting off the pad at the Wallops Island, Va., spaceport. Orbital has yet to return to flight but hopes to do so by the end of the year.
In April, a Russian Progress spacecraft, carrying another load of cargo for the space station, went into an uncontrolled spin and fell back to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere.
NASA’s top official for human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier, said that although the crewed mission to the station in July remains on track, he and his colleagues want to ensure that the Russian Soyuz spacecraft is not vulnerable to whatever caused the failure of the Russian Progress cargo vehicle.
These failures in cargo delivery have not cost any lives, but the New Space movement did suffer one fatality last year when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, an experimental vehicle designed to take tourists into space in the coming months, including company founder Richard Branson, broke apart over the Mojave desert, killing one of the test pilots.
Such recent failures — and worst-case scenarios in which astronauts run out of supplies and have to abandon the space station entirely — meant that just about everyone in the space business was closely watching Sunday morning’s launch. Adding drama to the day was Musk’s ambitious plan to demonstrate the reusability of rocket boosters.
SpaceX had parked a barge out in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast. The company hoped to ease its main booster back to Earth and let it land softly on the barge, a feat SpaceX has never pulled off. Previous attempts have ended with boosters crashing onto the barge.
The rocket took off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 10:21 a.m., and everything seemed fine for about the first two minutes. Then the video of the launch showed harrowing, if all-too-familiar, images of the rocket exploding and disintegrating amid a billowing white cloud.
It is unclear what went wrong. Musk suggested on Twitter that the cause was an “overpressure event” in a liquid oxygen tank in the upper stage of the rocket.
“Data suggests counterintuitive cause,” he wrote, cryptically.