An unmanned SpaceX rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station disintegrated over the Florida coast just two minutes after liftoff Sunday — the third major failure for America’s commercial space industry in eight months.
The explosion was a blow to billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX aerospace venture, which has shaken the global launch business in recent years by showing it can successfully fly rockets at a fraction of the price of other providers.
It was too early to determine what went wrong Sunday, but executives at the Hawthorne firm vowed to quickly pinpoint the problem. “We will identify the issue we experienced, fix it and get back to flight,” Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said at Sunday news conference.
The failure creates a challenge for NASA. It was the third cargo ship loaded with food, water and other supplies lost in less than a year.
“We expected … we would lose some vehicles,” William Gerstenmaier, a NASA associate administrator, said at the news conference. “I didn’t think we’d lose them all in a one-year time frame, but we have.”
Among the Falcon 9’s cargo were parts needed for a water filtration system, said Michael Suffredini, manager of NASA’s space station program.
He said the astronauts on the space station have enough food and water for about four months and that another Russian resupply ship was scheduled to launch Friday.
NASA would start planning to bring the astronauts back to Earth, he said, only if vital supplies dwindled to enough for 45 days.
Musk tweeted soon after the failure that there had been “an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank.”
“That’s all we can say with confidence right now,” Musk wrote.
The loss of another commercial rocket operated under a NASA contract comes at a time when the agency’s critics in Congress are threatening to reduce funding. Among the targets has been a program under which NASA gave contracts to SpaceX and Boeing Co. to develop spacecraft to fly astronauts to the space station.
SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has also been lobbying for the opportunity to launch the Pentagon’s spy satellites and other crucial spacecraft. The company’s congressional critics have argued that the upstart is not as reliable as a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that has long had a lock on the military work.
“SpaceX will now have to work on their technical problems and political problems simultaneously,” said Greg Autry, an assistant professor at USC who follows the space industry.
The Falcon 9 rocket had flown successfully 18 times. Sunday’s cargo mission was the seventh under the NASA contract.
It was the company’s first failure since August 2008, when a different rocket — the Falcon 1 — did not reach orbit.
The explosion happened despite good weather. The countdown went smoothly.
After just over two minutes of flight, NASA lost contact with the rocket. Video showed it shattering apart, leaving a cloud of debris.
The success of the SpaceX mission had become more crucial after a Russian resupply ship spun out of control in late April and was destroyed as it fell back to Earth.
Before that, on Oct. 28, a rocket operated by NASA’s other commercial cargo hauler, Orbital Sciences, exploded just seconds after liftoff from a Virginia launch pad.
Orbital executives blamed that failure on a fuel pump in one of the rocket’s 40-year-old Russian engines. Orbital has since redesigned the rocket, aiming to begin flying it again next year.
“Orbital Sciences isn’t anywhere close to being ready to fly again,” said Marco Caceres, an aerospace industry analyst with Teal Group. “It will be months and months before they fly, and we’re not sure then if they’ll be successful.”
NASA officials said that SpaceX would do its own investigation of the failure under the supervision of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Sunday’s failure creates the third recent calamity for the U.S. commercial space industry. Just days after Orbital’s rocket was destroyed in October, Virgin Galactic’s experimental space plane was pulled apart over the Mojave Desert during a test flight. One of two pilots was killed.
Some analysts urged Congress not to overreact to Sunday’s loss. They said more failures were expected as the industry launched more rockets — work once done only by NASA.
“Some will attempt to make this the tombstone of commercial space,” said Charles Lurio, a Boston space analyst who publishes the Lurio Report. “But there is no alternative but to do more of it and more often.”
SpaceX has orders for almost 50 upcoming launches — work valued at $7 billion — from a growing list of government and corporate customers.
Caceres, the Teal Group analyst, said SpaceX needs to determine what caused the explosion and fix the problem quickly so that it can begin flying again and keep those customers.
He said the problem did not appear to be with the Falcon 9’s design because the rocket had already flown 18 times. Instead, he said, it may have been a clogged fuel line or fuel leak.
Shotwell, SpaceX’s president, said she expected the investigation to take several months. She declined to say how much the launch had cost. “We don’t talk about costs publicly,” she said.
Sunday’s SpaceX launch was being closely watched. The company was planning to make its third attempt to land the rocket on an ocean barge after the capsule and second-stage engine separated and continued to orbit.
That plan is part of Musk’s goal to make rockets reusable, which could reduce the cost of space travel.
Caceres urged SpaceX to temporarily halt the experimental barge landings and focus on mission success. “They need to develop the government’s trust,” he said.
Scott Kelly, one of the astronauts aboard the space station, tweeted that he had watched the launch.
“Sadly failed,” he wrote. “Space is hard.”