Senator seeks answers about SpaceX explosion

Third disaster in past year involving cargo ship heading to space station

BY JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE – U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is sounding the alarm about the future of U.S. space flights but industry officials in Florida remained calm after the latest explosion of a cargo rocket on Sunday, June 28.

150703_florida01150703_florida01bNelson met with SpaceX and NASA officials on Monday to discuss why the resupply rocket exploded.

The disaster was the third in the past year involving a cargo ship headed to the International Space Station.

Before the briefing, Nelson raised questions about a possible shortage of supplies on the space station and the reasons for the unmanned Falcon 9’s explosion just over two minutes after blasting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Sunday.

“We would be remiss to underestimate the gravity of the situation right now,” Nelson, a Democrat who is the ranking member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in a press release issued Monday morning.

‘A mishap’
But officials at Space Florida, a quasi-government agency created to expand the state’s space industry, called the disaster a “mishap” that will be quickly solved by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the California-based company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Rockets “fly in unforgiving environments,” Space Florida President Frank DiBello said in a statement.

“From time to time mishaps will happen,” DiBello said. “In its short history SpaceX has built an impressive record of success and I have no doubt that the company will get to the bottom of the problem, fix it and continue on successfully.”

Earlier this month Space Florida agreed to take over the former Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center. The plan is to use the three-mile runway as a testing ground for new companies and technologies for the next 30 years. Space Florida, which intends to charge fees to private companies to use the grounds, is expected to pump about $5 million into upgrades.

What it carried
Sunday’s unmanned launch was carrying 4,000 pounds of supplies, including a new docking port, to the space station.

NASA reported that the explosion won’t impact operations at the ISS, which has enough supplies to get through at least October. The next resupplying mission is set for July 3 from Russia, with another planned for August.

The disaster also isn’t expected to alter the July 22 launch from Kazakhstan, scheduled to deliver the next crew members to the space station.

But the Federal Aviation Administration investigation into Sunday’s explosion could keep SpaceX – which had successfully flown to the ISS six previous times and has a $2 billion contract with NASA for 15 resupply missions – grounded for months.

Cause still unknown
Officials from Space X on Monday continued to investigate the explosion, which occurred shortly before the first stage shutdown.

“Preliminary analysis suggests the vehicle experienced an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank approximately 139 seconds into flight,” SpaceX stated in a release.

“Telemetry indicates first stage flight was nominal and that Dragon remained healthy for some period of time following separation. Our teams are reviewing data to determine root cause and we will be able to provide more information following a thorough fault tree analysis.”

The disaster comes after other recent resupply mission failures and as NASA continues to depend heavily upon Russia, even as the Ukraine crisis has strained relations between the two countries, to support the space station.

A robotic Russian cargo freighter with 3 tons of food and fuel began spinning out of control after reaching orbit in April and, instead of reaching the ISS vessel, burned upon returning to Earth’s atmosphere. In October, a private Orbital Sciences-built cargo launch to the ISS exploded shortly after launching from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

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