With loss of SpaceX Dragon – NASA now dependent on Russia, Japan for access to ISS
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — With the two companies providing cargo delivery services for NASA to the International Space Station having had their rockets encounter major anomalies in the past year, the agency now has no way, outside of its international partners, to deliver supplies to the orbiting laboratory. This is the unfortunate situation following the June 28, 2015, loss of a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket and its payload of an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft and the 4,000 lbs (1,814 kg) of supplies and experiments that it carried.
Everything appeared to be going according to plan when the 1-second (instantaneous) launch window opened at 10:21 a.m. EDT (14:21 GMT) and the F9 booster thundered off of the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Florida. Both the rocket and spacecraft appeared to be in superb shape.
That all changed at about 2 minutes and twenty seconds into flight, around the point of stage separation, the vehicle’s second stage encountered an over pressure anomaly – resulting in the complete loss of both the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft.
“We are disappointed in the loss of the latest SpaceX cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. However, the astronauts are safe aboard the station and have sufficient supplies for the next several months. We will work closely with SpaceX to understand what happened, fix the problem and return to flight. The commercial cargo program was designed to accommodate [the] loss of cargo vehicles. We will continue operation of the station in a safe and effective way as we continue to use it as our test bed for preparing for longer duration missions farther into the Solar System,” said NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden via a statement issued just before 1 p.m. EDT 17:00 GMT).
Initial statements made shortly after the accident gave conflicting information as to whether-or-not the Flight Termination Hardware had been activated by the Air Force Station’s Range Safety. SpaceX’s COO and President Gwynne Shotwell stated that she did not believe a destruct signal had been sent.
SpaceX’s CEO and Founder, Elon Musk, provided the following explanation about the accident shortly after the vehicle was lost: “There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Data suggests counterintuitive cause… That’s all we can say with confidence right now. Will have more to say following a thorough fault tree analysis.”
The NewSpace company responded quickly after the accident, stating that an anomaly investigation team would be working to determine the root cause of the problem as soon as possible. Pam Underwood with the FAA classified today’s accident as a “mishap” – one whose investigation will be conducted by SpaceX with FAA oversight.
“This is a tough business, every launch provider has to consider this as part of their business plan,” Shotwell said when asked about how this might impact SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Program. “It’s a hiccup, a time to pause – but not to make any significant changes to our plans.”
Today’s flight had been pushed back from taking place earlier this month; this was predicated by the loss of the Roscosmos Progress M-27M on April 28 of this year. In fact, today’s accident marks the third loss of an uncrewed cargo vessel traveling to the space station in less than a year – each produced by a different entity.
In October of 2014, an Orbital ATK Antares exploded 12 seconds after launch, resulting in the complete loss of the rocket and its payload of a Cygnus spacecraft; then there was the Russian accident in April, and now the loss of Dragon.
NASA worked to assuage concerns that the station might be running low on supplies by noting that Russia is scheduled to launch the Progress M-28M spacecraft on July 3 and that a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) HTV spacecraft is scheduled to launch later this summer.
As of today, the United States lacks the capability to launch either cargo or crew to the ISS. Despite today’s events, the agency continued to express confidence in SpaceX.
“SpaceX has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first six cargo resupply missions to the station, and we know they can replicate that success. We will work with and support SpaceX to assess what happened, understand the specifics of the failure and correct it to move forward. This is a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but we learn from each success and each setback. Today’s launch attempt will not deter us from our ambitious human spaceflight program,” Bolden said.
Other officials within the agency were more reserved in their response.
“This is not where I wanted to be on a Sunday afternoon. There is no commonality between the accidents, other than it is difficult to fly in space,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate William Gerstenmaier. “This is a blow to us, we lost a lot of cargo during this flight, we lost the IDA, a spacesuit… it’s a pretty substantial loss to us – but we will recover.”
Gerstenmaier’s comments were reinforced by Mike Suffredini, NASA’s Space Station Program Office Manager.
“It’s not a question of whether you will stumble or fall – it’s a question of what you do after you have stumbled and fall,” Suffredini said.
When asked, Gerstenmaier responded to whether or not this incident could bolster the argument made by members of the Senate Appropriations Committee who voted to cut the budget for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program earlier this month by stating that the agency needs to be allowed to continue moving forward with the progress that they have already made toward having astronauts travel to the ISS via commercially-produced rockets and spacecraft.
Shotwell stated that an array of craft had been deployed to search for debris that might be recoverable – but that it was not known at this time if any had been found and stated that the investigation was currently focusing on the booster’s second stage. Today’s accident helped to reinforce the fact that travel to-and-from low-Earth orbit is still challenging. A fact reinforced by Gerstenmaier.
“I didn’t think we’d lose all of our commercial cargo spacecraft in one year – but we have,” Gerstenmaier said. “We get into trouble when we start to think it’s easy or routine – it’s not easy and it’s not routine.”
NASA and SpaceX have requested that if any debris is found that the public call: 321-867-2121
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.