SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk said Tuesday the June 28 failure of a Falcon 9 rocket that destroyed a space station-bound Dragon cargo capsule was a "huge blow" to the company and that conflicting data has made it difficult to determine the root cause of the mishap.
Speaking at the annual International Space Station R&D Conference in Boston, Musk said he hopes to be able to say "something more definitive toward the end of the week."
"At this point, the only thing that's really clear is there was some kind of over-pressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank, " he said. "But the exact cause and the sequence of events, there's still no clear theory that fits with all the data."
SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to build and launch 12 space station resupply missions using the company's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule. During launch of the seventh operational resupply mission June 28, the second stage liquid oxygen tank apparently ruptured around two minutes and 39 seconds into flight.
The rocket's nine first-stage engines were nearing the end of their planned burn and the booster continued flying as the second stage was engulfed in vapor. Seconds later, the vehicle disintegrated in a burst of fragments. The Dragon capsule apparently survived the rocket's initial breakup, transmitting telemetry as it plunged toward impact in the Atlantic Ocean.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket breaks up after a second stage failure during launch June 28, destroying a Dragon cargo ship loaded with more than two tons of supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station.
NASA TVLost in the failure were more than 4, 000 pounds of research gear, spare parts and supplies needed aboard the space station, including a spacesuit and a docking mechanism, the first of two intended for use by visiting U.S. crew ferry ships.
"Obviously, it's a huge blow to SpaceX, " Musk said of the failure. "We take these missions incredibly seriously. Everyone that can engage in the investigation at SpaceX is very, very focused on that.
"In this case, the data seems to be quite difficult to interpret. Whatever happened is clearly not a simple, straight-forward thing. So we want to spend as much time as possible just reviewing the data, obviously going over it with NASA and the FAA and a number of other customers, and just sort of seeing what feedback everyone has, based on their prior experience, to see if we can get to what the most likely root cause is."
Sharing the stage with Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager, Musk thanked the space agency for its help in the ongoing failure analysis.
"As soon as we think we've got a clear line on what happened, and we've cross checked it with as many experts as we can - and we certainly appreciate the feedback from NASA on this front - we'll certainly try to put out that story, " Musk said. "My only reticence about saying something quite yet, I don't want to say something that subsequently turns out to be a misunderstanding of the situation."
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