This puts added pressure on another resupply launch scheduled for Friday by Russia, its first attempt since losing a supply capsule in April.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket shattered while traveling at 2, 900 mph, about 27 miles up. Everything seemed to be going well until the rocket went supersonic.
"We appear to have had a launch vehicle failure, " announced NASA commentator George Diller.
Data stopped flowing from the Falcon 9 rocket around 2 minutes and 19 seconds, he said.
There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk)
"That's all we can say with confidence right now, " Musk said via Twitter.
The private company is in charge of the accident investigation, with oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration, which licensed the flight.
The Dragon capsule, which is designed to eventually carry people, still sent signals to the ground after the rocket broke apart, said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. Had astronauts been on board, a still-being tested abort system, would have whisked them away to safety in such a mishap, she said.
SpaceX hopes to launch astronauts from U.S. soil again aboard the Falcon-Dragon combination in December 2017. They still can make that target, Shotwell said. Now NASA buys seats from Russia to get astronauts to the orbiting lab.
Shotwell assured reporters that the California-based company will fix the problem — "and get back to flight."
Losing this shipment — which included replacements for items lost in the two earlier failed supply flights — was a huge setback for NASA.
"This is a blow to us, " Gerstenmaier said, citing the docking port, a spacesuit and considerable scientific research that had been on board. He said there was nothing common among the three accidents, "other than it's space and it's difficult to go fly."
In April, a Russian cargo ship spun out of control and burned up upon re-entry. And last October, an Orbital Sciences Corp. capsule was destroyed in a launch accident in Virginia. Orbital Sciences andSpaceX have NASA contracts to ship cargo.
"Three failures on three different vehicles is unusual, but it would be even more worrisome if we had only one means of access, " former NASA associate administrator Scott Pace wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
In addition to Friday's scheduled Russian launch, Orbital Sciences may be able to launch their supply ship at the end of this year, using another company's rocket. And a Japanese resupply ship is scheduled for August, Gerstenmaier said.
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