An unmanned SpaceX rocket carrying Grant Union Junior/Senior students science project, supplies and a first-of-its-kind docking port to the International Space Station broke apart Sunday shortly after liftoff. It was a severe blow to NASA, still reeling from previous failed shipments.
The unmanned craft was carrying 27 student experiments in all. The local project was designed by five Grant Union Junior/Senior High students — Zack Dieter, Elijah Humbird, Duane Stokes, Dante Valentine and Cauy Weaver. They were ninth-graders when they teamed up last fall to compete for a spot on the space rocket.
Sonna Smith, Grant Union Junior/Senior High science teacher, confirmed Sunday morning it was the rocket carrying their project.
Smith said, “This has happened before and the students were able to re-fly their project.”
In October 2014 the same incident happened and they were able to send their project up again. Smith and the students are awaiting official word on if they will be given the opportunity to fly again. She hopes to hear within a week from the company.
The science project was to be returned to Grant Union Junior/Senior High after the estimated 42 day mission to be placed on display.
The accident happened about 2 1/2 minutes into the flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida. A billowing white cloud emerged in the sky, growing bigger and bigger, then fiery plumes shot out of where the rocket was supposed to be, and pieces could be seen falling into the Atlantic. More than 5,200 pounds of space station cargo were on board, including the first docking port designed for future commercial crew capsules.
“We appear to have had a launch vehicle failure,” announced NASA commentator George Diller. Data stopped flowing from the Falcon 9 rocket around 2 minutes and 19 seconds, he said. No astronauts were on board.
The rocket shattered while traveling at 2,900 mph, about 27 miles up. Everything appeared to go well in the flight until the rocket went supersonic.
SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk later said an over pressurization occurred in the liquid-oxygen tank of the rocket’s upper stage.
“That’s all we can say with confidence right now,” Musk said via Twitter. “Will have more to say following a thorough fault tree analysis.”
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell assured reporters, at an early afternoon news conference, that the company will fix the problem — “and get back to flight.”
Losing this shipment — which included replacements for items lost in two previous failed supply flights — was a huge setback for NASA in more than one way. The space agency is counting on private industry to transport cargo — and eventually astronauts — to the orbiting lab. The California-based SpaceX is one of the contenders.
“This is a tough day,” said NASA’s top spaceflight official, William Gerstenmaier. He said there was nothing common among the three accidents, “other than it’s space and it’s difficult to go fly.”
This is the second failed station shipment in a row and the third in eight months.
In April, a Russian cargo ship spun out of control and burned up upon re-entry, along with all its precious contents. And last October, an Orbital Sciences Corp. supply ship was destroyed in a launch accident.
This Dragon had been carrying replacement food, clothes and science experiments for items lost in those two mishaps. The seven previous SpaceX supply runs, dating back to 2012, had gone exceedingly well.
“This is a blow to us,” Gerstenmaier told reporters, citing the docking port, a spacesuit and considerable research that had been on board. The space agency expected losses, just not three in under a year, he said.
The three space station residents were watching the launch live from orbit, including astronaut Scott Kelly.
“Sadly failed,” Kelly said via Twitter. “Space is hard.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and other officials stressed that the space station crew is in no immediate trouble because of this latest loss. Late last week, NASA’s space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, said the outpost had enough supplies on board to make it to October or so.
Russia expects to take another crack at launching supplies on Friday from Kazakhstan. And the Japanese Space Agency is on track to send up supplies in August.
But it wasn’t immediately clear whether Russia’s plans to launch three more men on July 22 would stay on track. Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield — a former station commander — said the supply situation could prompt another delay in sending up the crew. The Soyuz mishap in April already has delayed the trip by two months.
“You don’t want to launch another crew if there’s not going to be enough food, enough water,” Hadfield said in an online chat. But Gerstenmaier said the crew flight would go on as planned.
SpaceX is one of two companies hired by NASA to start ferrying American astronauts to the space station as early as 2017. The other contender is Boeing.
Musk — who also runs electric car maker Tesla — noted Sunday’s problem occurred shortly before first stage shutdown. The company had hoped to land the first-stage booster on an ocean platform, off the north Florida coast, in a test of rocket reusability. Previous efforts had failed.
Kelly’s identical twin, Mark, a former space shuttle commander who is taking part in medical studies on the ground, pointed out that SpaceX, until now, had “a great record” with its Falcon 9 rockets. “These things happen,” he said in a tweet. “They will figure this out.” He spoke to his brother and reported, “He’s paying close attention” to the situation involving the catastrophic failure.
Launch spectators lining the beaches near Cape Canaveral were confused, at first, by the unexpected plumes in the sky.
“It looked fine until it was almost out of sight. And then, a poof of smoke,” said Whitney Jackson of Palm Beach, Florida, watching with her family. “Everyone was cheering and clapping. No one knew it meant failure.”
Sunday, by the way, was Musk’s 44th birthday.