SpaceX Cargo Loss is Government’s, but Rocket Costs and Backlog Uncertain

March 7, 2011 – 03:15 pm

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket en route to the International Space Station erupted in flames on Sunday moments after its launch, delivering a potential business interruption blow to the so-far highly successful private space company.

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.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX on Monday was searching for what destroyed its Falcon 9 rocket after liftoff over the weekend. The privately-held company had flown 18 successful missions with the Falcon 9 before Sunday’s failure.

Preliminary analysis pointed to a problem with the rocket’s second-stage motor liquid oxygen tank, SpaceX said.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft breaks apart shortly after liftoff at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Sunday. The rocket was carrying supplies to the International Space Station. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

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 in the decade, Bloomberg reported.

The project, if successful, would be one step closer to entrepreneur Elon Musk’s aim to transport astronauts aboard commercial spacecraft.

On Sunday, Musk tweeted: “There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause.”

His last Tweet to date was: “Cause still unknown after several thousand engineering-hours of review. Now parsing data with a hex editor to recover final milliseconds.”

NASA Determined

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden expressed his disappointment over the loss, but said the commercial cargo program was designed to accommodate loss of cargo vehicles and the astronauts about the International Space Station have ample supplies over the next few months.

“SpaceX has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first six cargo resupply missions to the station, and we know they can replicate that success, ” Bolden said in a statement. “We will work with and support SpaceX to assess what happened, understand the specifics of the failure and correct it to move forward. This is a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but we learn from each success and each setback. Today’s launch attempt will not deter us from our ambitious human spaceflight program.”

SpaceX’s insurer is Carpinteria, Calif.-based Starr Aviation, a division of Starr Indemnity & Liability Co. Starr Aviation Executive Vice President Charles Rudd confirmed SpaceX was his company’s customer, but was not immediately able to offer further details.

The cost of what was lost wasn’t immediately clear, nor was how the loss of the rocket itself will be paid for.


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