Space Is Hard: SpaceX Rocket Explodes After Takeoff

Today was Elon Musk’s forty-fourth birthday. I can’t know for sure, but it was probably the worst one of his life. His company had planned to fly a cargo mission to the International Space Station this morning from Florida, and then attempt to land its first stage on a ship out at sea. Instead, the Falcon 9 rocket blew up a little before two minutes into the flight, losing the cargo -- including a new spacesuit for EVA's -- and the landing opportunity. It's been confirmed that controllers did not send a "destruct" signal.

It was the nineteenth launch of the system, and its first-ever mission failure for that vehicle. It was in fact the first mission failure since 2008.

It’s too early to know the root cause, but indications are that there was a problem in the second stage as it prepared to light, but prior to separation from the first stage. There have been rumors (unsubstantiated) that there have been issues with the liner of the liquid oxygen tank in the second stage, of which NASA had been aware. But the company has always been transparent in its investigations, and can be expected to continue to be so.

The Dragon cargo capsule appeared to have separated prior to the explosion, and survived for some time after, but at this point, didn’t seem to survive impact with the Atlantic. Recovery crew in ships ready to attend to the landing attempt were instead diverted to search for debris. If it had been the new crew version of the capsule, with its launch abort system that was tested on the pad a few weeks ago, it’s likely that it would have separated safely and survived on parachutes.

But it means no more flights until they understand what happened, and how to prevent it from happening again. No doubt some of their commercial customers may have second thoughts, and the insurance rates (and possibly costs, if they have to add in new mission-assurance procedures) will likely go up. But given the successful string of flights prior to this, it should be only a temporary setback for the company, and lessons learned will improve reliability going forward.