- The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft breaks apart shortly after liftoff at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Sunday, June 28, 2015. The rocket was carrying supplies to the International Space Station. (AP Photo/John Raoux) (The Associated Press)
- The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Sunday, June 28, 2015. The rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station broke apart shortly after liftoff. (AP Photo/John Raoux) (The Associated Press)
WASHINGTON – A rocket's dead, blown to bits in public view. Now it's time for "Rocket Science CSI."
After 18 straight successful launches, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket broke apart Sunday morning minutes after soaring away from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Lost with the rocket was a capsule packed with supplies for the crew on the International Space Station.
In this whodunit, there are clues pointing to pressure problems in the second stage's liquid oxygen tank, SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted within hours. But that may be a red herring, and a former NASA shuttle chief warns against jumping to conclusions.
"First impressions never are right, " said Wayne Hale, who is on the board investigating last year's launch pad failure of Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket, also carrying station cargo for NASA.
The SpaceX investigation will be a lot like the crime dramas you see on television, complete with forensics examination of debris. Except it's not over in an hour. Most mishap investigations take about a year, Hale said. Eight months later, Orbital's investigation isn't done yet.
The engineering detective work kicks in after all the information is saved, including more than 3, 000 channels of data radioed from the rocket. In engineering-speak it's called a fault tree analysis. Engineers calculate everything that could go wrong and why.
It's painstaking. It's precise. It's logical, like the board game Clue, said retired space expert John Logsdon, who was on the board that investigated the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident.
"One by one eliminate everything that it could not be until you get down to hopefully relatively few possibilities, " Logsdon said. "It's a complex mystery with multiple suspects."
It all comes down to one question: Why?
"You have to ask why seven times, that's the rule of thumb, " said Hale
You find one thing that went wrong, then ask why that happened, and keep going, asking why about seven times until you find the root cause, he said.
Here's what we know so far according, to SpaceX officials:
— The Sunday's accident occurred about 28 miles off the ground when the rocket was going more than 3, 100 mph.
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