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.

With the loss of the Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket last fall, and the Russian Progress flight a few weeks ago, NASA now has no reliable launch providers to service the space station. But reliable or not, they will have to press forward with another Progress attempt this coming week. NASA also plans to move ahead with its next crewed flight on the Soyuz this summer, to get back to full capacity for research.

It isn’t a crisis, yet. The crew has four months of supplies, and they’ll get more soon with a successful Progress flight. The previous SpaceX mission had returned experiments in the station freezer, so that was not urgent for this flight, either. The biggest loss was the new International Docking Adapter, needed to allow multiple types of crew vehicles to dock with the station. However, there is a back up, and enough parts to build a third one. A few miniature satellites planned to be deployed into orbit from the ISS were also lost. Per the contract, the company won’t be required to refly, but will pay a penalty for the failure.

Politically, while it was a bad day for Elon Musk and his company and space enthusiasts generally, it was probably a good one for Senator Richard Shelby and others on the Hill who have been continually pressuring NASA to focus on a single provider (presumably their favorite, Boeing) for the Commercial Crew program, while chronically under funding it. In the ongoing budget battle this summer, they will doubtless attempt to use this failure as ammunition, even though it’s illogical to think that we should be reducing budgets and redundancy in the face of a failure. If anything, as with the Antares loss last year, it demonstrated the crucial need for multiple providers.

The event is also a reminder that opening frontiers is never safe or easy, and that space is the harshest one that we ever had to deal with. But each loss is also a lesson learned, and another step forward.