An unmanned SpaceX rocket carrying supplies and the first-of-its-kind docking port to the International Space Station broke apart Sunday shortly after liftoff. It was a severe blow to NASA, still reeling from previous failed shipments.
The accident occurred about 2 1/2 minutes into the flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Pieces could be seen falling into the Atlantic. More than 5,200 pounds of space station cargo were on board, including the first docking port designed for future commercial crew capsules.
"The vehicle has broken up," announced NASA commentator George Diller. Data stopped flowing from the Falcon 9 rocket around 2 minutes and 19 seconds, he said. No astronauts were on board.
The rocket shattered while traveling at 2,900 mph, about 27 miles up. Everything appeared to go well in the flight until the rocket went supersonic.
SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk later said an over pressurization occurred in the liquid-oxygen tank of the rocket's upper stage.
"That's all we can say with confidence right now," Musk said via Twitter. "Will have more to say following a thorough fault tree analysis."
Losing this shipment — which included replacements for items lost in two previous failed supply flights — was a huge setback for NASA in more than one way. The space agency is counting on private industry to transport cargo — and eventually astronauts — to the orbiting lab. The California-based SpaceX is one of the contenders.
This is the second failed station shipment in a row and the third in eight months.
In April, a Russian cargo ship spun out of control and burned up upon re-entry, along with all its precious contents. And last October, another company's supply ship was destroyed in a launch accident.
This Dragon had been carrying replacement food, clothes and science experiments for items lost in those two mishaps. The seven previous SpaceX supply runs, dating back to 2012, had gone exceedingly well.
The three space station residents were watching the launch live from orbit.
"Sadly failed," space station astronaut Scott Kelly said via Twitter. "Space is hard."
The space station crew is in no immediate trouble because of this latest loss. Late last week, NASA's space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, said the outpost had enough supplies on board to make it to October or so.
Russia expects to take another crack at launching supplies on Friday from Kazakhstan.
But it wasn't immediately clear whether Russia's plans to launch three more men on July 22 would stay on track. Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield — a former station commander — said the supply situation could prompt another delay in sending up the crew. The Soyuz mishap in April already has delayed the trip by two months.
"You don't want to launch another crew if there's not going to be enough food, enough water," Hadfield said in an online chat.
SpaceX is one of two companies hired by NASA to start ferrying American astronauts to the space station as early as 2017. The other contender is Boeing.
Musk — who also runs electric car maker Tesla — noted Sunday's problem occurred shortly before first stage shutdown. The company had hoped to land the first-stage booster on an ocean platform, off the north Florida coast, in a test of rocket reusability. Previous efforts had failed.
Kelly's identical twin, Mark, a former space shuttle commander who is taking part in medical studies with his brother, pointed out that SpaceX, until now, had "a great record" with its Falcon 9 rockets. "These things happen," he said in a tweet. "They will figure this out."
Launch spectators lining the beaches near Cape Canaveral were confused, at first, by the unexpected plumes in the sky.
"It looked fine until it was almost out of sight. And then, a poof of smoke," said Whitney Jackson of Palm Beach, Florida, watching with her family. "Everyone was cheering and clapping. No one knew it meant failure."
Sunday, by the way, was Musk's 44th birthday.