SpaceX founder Elon Musk is vying to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.
Nine days after a launch failure sent one of its rockets crashing back to Earth, SpaceX is still trying to make sense of data from the doomed space-station resupply mission. But company founder Elon Musk says that definitive conclusions could come later in the week.
“Whatever happened is clearly not a simple, straightforward thing, ” Musk said today (7 July) at the International Space Station (ISS) Research & Development conference in Boston, Massachusetts. “There’s still no clear theory that fits with all the data.”
As they work to construct an accident scenario that matches the available telemetry data, SpaceX investigators are also considering the possibility that some conflicting measurements are the result of instrument error.
SpaceX, of Hawthorne, California, has a US$1.6-billion contract with NASA to fly uncrewed cargo missions to the ISS. The 28 June launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida followed six successful launches of the two-stage Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon supply capsule. Shortly after the crash, Musk tweeted that the incident seemed to be related to an “overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank”.
The accident comes on the heels of two other failed ISS supply missions: the October explosion of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket and the burning up of the Russian Progress 59 vessel in May. Some industry watchers fear that the accidents could undermine support from the public — and potentially the US Congress — for NASA’s efforts to develop and partner with the commercial spaceflight industry.
SpaceX is vying with other contractors for a historic NASA contract to transport astronauts to the station. In September 2014, SpaceX won a $2.6-billion NASA award to continue its development of a crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule, called Dragon v2, and the Falcon rocket. Industry leader Boeing was awarded $4.2 billion to develop its own crew-transport system. SpaceX is now waiting to learn if it will win all, or a portion of, a second-round bid to provide resupply services to the ISS through 2024.
Musk’s plans for the Dragon v2 capsule go beyond the space station. The craft's soft-landing capability will make it an ideal vessel for delivering scientific payloads to the Moon and Mars in the future, Musk says. “It could really lower the cost of getting science instruments to other places in the Solar System.”
Since the Falcon failure, the three astronauts aboard the ISS have received a shipment of supplies. A Russian Progress cargo spacecraft successfully launched and docked at the station on 5 July. A Japanese HTV cargo freighter is scheduled to bring fresh supplies to the astronauts in August, and Progress resupplies are slated for later this year.
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