(Source: NASA/YouTube)
Data from failed Dragon capsule launch points to "counterintuitive cause" according to CEO Elon Musk

Fans of SpaceX, the world's top private spaceflight firm, were hoping that the third time would be the charm for the company's ambitious attempt to land the Falcon 9-R's booster on a barge, a key step towards reducing launch costs.  Instead, those watching the launched were dismayed to see the resupply craft exploded, roughly 2 minutes and 18 seconds (138 seconds, total) into its launch.

I. A Rare Failure

The flight began at around 10:20 a.m. (E.S.T.) on Sunday morning.  The first sign of trouble was a puff of what looks to be smoke obscuring the craft.  This continues for several seconds, and is followed by debris from the ruined launch vehicle falling to the ground.

(Launch is at 26 sec., failure starts at 2 min., 44 sec. in video.)

The Falcon 9 v1.1 has a burn time of 180 seconds for the first stage.  Based on the video, the rocket was three-quarters through its first stage burn at the time of failure.  

SpaceX explosion

SpaceX's founder/owner/CEO Elon Musk (@elonmusk) took to Twitter, Inc. (TWTR) shortly after the crash, confirming that the failure occurred during the first stage.  He also states curiously that a "counterintuitive cause" appeared to be to blame. As a rule "space travel is hard" as at least one Twitter response to Musk's comments states.  Dealing with massive pressures, high temperatures, and immense kinetic forces pushes manmade materials to their brink.

II. Getting Back on Track

To date SpaceX had a perfect record in its commercial cargo launches for the Falcon 9.  Sunday's launch was set to be the seventh delivery under the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.  CRS launches resupply the International Space Station, a task that's been challenging for NASA since the July 2011 retirement of the Space Shuttle.
SpaceX Falcon 9
A list of Falcon rockets, from back in 2005. [Image Source: SpaceX]
SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1
A comparison between Falcon 9 Block 1 (2005) and Falcon 9 v1.1 (2013).

Under the CRS program in 2008, SpaceX promised NASA a minimum of 12 launches through 2016 in exchange for $1.6B USD (up to $150M USD per launch; $133M USD per launch billed so far).  SpaceX has the potential to earn up to $3B USD with additional launches (a maximum of 20 launches).  SpaceX, if it can set aside this hiccup looks on pace to meet the minimum requirements.  It's successfully carried out under the CRS contract [source]:
  • 2012 -- 1 launch
  • 2013 -- 1 launch
  • 2014 -- 2 launches
  • 2015 -- 2 launches (plus the failed launch)
(Test flights in 2011 and in early 2012 were also conducted.)

Sunday's CRS-7 mission was supposed to test a new docking module, dubbed the International Docking Adapter (IDA)-1.  Now that test will have to shift to a launch later this year.  NASA wrote in a blog that it would assemble a replacement to the lost adapter.

SpaceX Falcon 9
A fan-made image shows the launch and Booster landing plans. [Image Source: Imgur/Adam Rifkin]

SpaceX plans 2 additional launches for this year for September and December.  If it can pull those off, it will still have doubled its launch total from last year.  It has promised three launches for next year (inc. 1 in February), but it will be under pressure to add an extra one in, as the failure puts it one launch short of the promised mark.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden remarked on the failure:

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 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. 

A Progress vehicle is ready to launch July 3, followed in August by a Japanese HTV flight. Orbital ATK, our other commercial cargo partner, is moving ahead with plans for its next launch later this year.

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.

SpaceX is still in better shape than Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB), who was awarded $1.9B USD for 8 flights under the CRS program in 2008.  Despite being given more money for less work, Orbital Sciences has only completed two successful CRS missions to date, and those were not at full cargo capacity.  Orbital's plans to pick up the pace were disrupted by a major launch failure of its own on Oct. 28 of last year.  (Orbital Sciences subsquently shelved its plans for the Antares rocket, moving on Lockheed Martin Corp.'s (LMT) Atlas V 401 platform, a rocket that's seen 26 successful launches since its debut in 2002.)

In many ways the failure of Orbital Sciences' Antares 130 rocket in October was much worse than today's Falcon 9 failure.  That explosion happened only six seconds into the launch, when the rocket had much more fuel onboard and was much closer to the ground.  As a result, not only was the rocket lost, but there was modest damage of around $50M USD to NASA's launch facility, as well.

By contrast the Falcon 9 had far less fuel when it blew up and was much higher up.  Consequently, the debris largely burned up prior to hitting the ground.  There appeared to be virtually no significant damage from the Falcon 9 failure.  Still losing a $60M+ USD rocket is never a happy event.

SpaceX dome
The weekend crash was the first major failure for SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.
[Image Source: Matthew Crawley]

SpaceX has promised to do a thorough cleanup and foot the bill for removing all the debris from the explosion.  Comments SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell:

We obviously want to recover anything we can.

SpaceX's launches are based out of the Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  This launchpad famously was the site of the Apollo 11 launch to the Moon. SpaceX has a 20-year lease agreement with NASA for use of the site.

Sources: Elon Musk on Twitter [1], [2], [3], YouTube

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