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Understanding The Aftermath Of SpaceX’s Failed Falcon Launch


On Sunday morning, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket broke apart nearly 30 miles above Cape Canaveral just a few minutes after launch, marking its first full mission failure. The rocket was taking the Dragon capsule, carrying more than 4,000 pounds of supplies, to the International Space Station (ISS).

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SpaceX had previously completed six successful resupply missions to the ISS, the latest one in April. While there were no humans on board and no accidents on the ground, the lost cargo contained over 4,000 pounds of food, water, and science experiments for the crew on station. William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, stated that the ISS crew will be fine and has sufficient supplies for the next four months. The next ISS resupply mission is scheduled to launch on July 3rd with the Russian Progress 60P vehicle. The exact cause of the Falcon 9 failure is unknown at this time, but Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX tweeted:

In the NASA press briefing following the accident, SpaceX was asked if there was anything that was done differently for this launch than in the previous six launches. SpaceX’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, responded, “There’s nothing that stands out as being different for this particular flight.”

SpaceX will now lead an accident investigation, making use of telemetry from 3,000 different channels that were transmitting information during the launch. “If there’s something there, we’re going to find it,” Shotwell said.

An unlucky series of events makes this the third failed resupply mission to the ISS in the past eight months. An Orbital Sciences resupply mission failed in October, the exact cause of which continues to be disputed. And in May, a Russian resupply mission was placed in the wrong orbit, forcing its cargo to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

In addition to providing supplies to the ISS, this launch was going to be SpaceX’s third attempt to softly land the first stage of their two-stage Falcon 9 on a platform in the sea. If they succeeded, it would have been the first time a rocket has ever been fully recovered for reuse.

About ten minutes after launch, SpaceX intended to detach the first stage of the Falcon 9 from the upper stage and cargo, flip the first stage 180 degrees, have it reenter into the Earth’s atmosphere faster than the speed of sound, and steer it to a floating barge in the sea.

If that sounds difficult, it’s because it is. SpaceX’s first two attempts at this complex strategy impressively ended up on target. However, they both resulted in violent explosions.

The first attempt occurred in January and failed because the rocket prematurely ran out of the hydraulic fluid used to steer the small fins that help control the rocket’s decent. Because of this, it landed with too much lateral force and exploded on impact.

The second attempt, packed with more hydraulic fluid, occurred in April and was much closer to sticking the landing. The hydraulic fluid and controlled decent weren’t an issue, however the rocket engine fired a few seconds longer than it should have. These critical seconds caused the rocket to temporarily lose control in the last few moments before landing, ultimately tipping over and exploding.


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