KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – In the span of mere moments, euphoria at the dawn of a dazzling Dragon liftoff atop a commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying critical science, supplies and docking components for NASA’s upcoming crewed spaceships to the International Space Station (ISS), turned to doom and gloom as the Dragon cargo ship disintegrated in mid-air, to the shock of everyone watching under sun drenched skies along the Florida space coast on Sunday, June 28.
By all accounts from NASA and SpaceX and based on new up close imagery from media including myself, the cargo flight on the CRS-7 cargo resupply mission to the ISS began flawlessly, with the nine Merlin 1D engines powering the Falcon 9 rockets first stage firing nominally to produce about 1.3 million pounds of liftoff thrust for nearly their entirely planned duration.
But at approximately 139 seconds into the planned 159 second firing of the first stage engine, the picture perfect blastoff was punctured as the upper part of the vehicle experienced an as yet unexplained anomaly and suddenly exploded, vaporizing into a grayish cloud at supersonic speed and raining debris down into the Atlantic Ocean.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon were destroyed just over two minutes after a stunning liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in sunny Florida at 10:21 a.m. EDT.
On its 19th launch, all of which had previously been fully successful, the rocket was traveling about 5000 km/h at an altitude of 45 kilometers when the mishap took place, coincidentally on the 44th birthday of SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk.
But why that happened and the vehicle disintegrated in mere seconds is still a mystery to be resolved.
“Cause still unknown after several thousand engineering-hours of review. Now parsing data with a hex editor to recover final milliseconds.”
In the meantime, all SpaceX launches including many for NASA as well as commercial customers are on hold indefinitely until the cause is determined and effective corrective actions are taken.
“We do not expect this to have been a first stage issue. We saw some pressurization indications in the second stage, which we’ll be tracking down, ” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell at a post launch failure media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center.
The next SpaceX cargo Dragon had been scheduled for liftoff in September 2015 on the CRS-8 mission, but is now postponed pending the results of the return to flight investigation.
There are sufficient supplies on board the ISS to keep the crew continuing their mission until at least October 2015.
The CRS-7 mission was critical for NASA in many ways. In addition to the science cargo, the truck section of the SpaceX Dragon was loaded with the first of two International Docking Adapters (IDA’s), that were to be connected to the space station to provide a place for Commercial Crew spacecraft carrying astronauts to dock to the orbiting laboratory as soon as 2017.
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