A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded about 2 minutes and 20 seconds after launch Sunday morning. No people were onboard; it was an uncrewed resupply mission. The cause is not yet known.
Here is video of the event (launch is at 51:48, the explosion at 54:05):
SpaceX has not released details yet; a press conference is scheduled for no earlier than 12:30 EDT. I’ll update here when I know more.
Looking at the video, the explosion doesn’t release flames, but instead you see a vaporous white cloud blow away. My guess—and I’m no expert—is that this was a pressurized cryogenic tank failure of some kind. But again, we’ll know more very soon.
Update 1, June 28, 2015 at 16:10 UTC: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk just tweeted that it looks like a tank overpressurization event, as I had guessed:
We should know more soon.
Update 2, June 28, 2015 at 17:25 UTC: At the news conference, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell noted that first stage flight went well, and the problem that led to the loss of the vehicle lay elsewhere. They have telemetry from the Dragon capsule from the event, and they are investigating it.
Also, I think you can see the Dragon capsule falling away seconds after the explosion. This is a screen grab from a YouTube video, taken at the 54:09 mark. It’s about the right shape, and it’s not too much to think it would survive the destruction of the upper stage. SpaceX hasn’t said, so this is in no way official, but I’m speculating again that there was a tank rupture as per Musk’s earlier tweet. This would’ve led to a big blowout of gas, which caused the vapor cloud. Then the pressure of the rocket’s flight through the air led to the catastrophic collapse of the upper stage. Dragon may have just fallen away after that. It’s also possible the range officer exploded the rocket after seeing the problem. We’ll know more soon. But again, this is guesswork on my part.
The Dragon capsule on top of the rocket had food and supplies for the astronauts on ISS. The three astronauts on board have enough food to last for many months, so they should be OK for now. Also on board the Dragon was an adapter ring for the ISS that would allow future commercial vehicles easier docking access.
This is the first SpaceX failure since it began resupply missions to ISS, but the third overall failure to ISS, including the loss of a Progress vehicle in April and the Orbital Antares rocket in October of 2014. This comes at a time when the Senate has been trying (wrongly, in my opinion) to cut back on funding for SpaceX and other commercial companies, so I expect we’ll see statements from those senators on this event shortly. Read them with a grain of salt. Again, we’ll know more shortly. Stay tuned.
Correction, June 28, 2015, at 17:50 UTC: I originally misspelled Gwynne Shotwell’s first name.