‘Spaceflight isn’t easy’: Rocket scientists despondent after latest ISS mission failure

An unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, June 28, 2015. (Reuters/Mike Brown)
Following two failed supply missions to the ISS in recent months, space engineers have been left searching for answers and solutions, after the generally reliable SpaceX Falcon 9 disintegrated in a fountain of fireworks just seconds after launch.

“There is no negligence here, there is no problem here, this just shows the challenges we face,” said NASA’s space operations head William Gerstenmaier at a downbeat press briefing. “Spaceflight isn’t easy.”

Falcon 9, which had successfully delivered six payloads to the International Space Station over the past three years, was fired off into a clear sky over Cape Canaveral at 10:21 am on Sunday, before exploding and breaking into thousands of fragments that fell into the Atlantic Ocean.

Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, which is carrying out the flights as part of a $1.6 billion NASA contract, blamed an “overpressure event in a liquid oxygen tank” located in the upper stage of the 500-ton rocket.

SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell said the definitive answer would only be known after studying the telemetric data, which could take months.

“We'll get back to flight as soon as we safely and reliably can,” said Shotwell, promising that the SpaceX fleet would return to the skies in less than a year.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

Gerstenmeier said the 2,400 kg cargo constituted an “important loss,” particularly lamenting the destruction of a “docking adapter, a space suit, and lot of research,” but promised that the ISS crew was “in no danger,” despite the failure of three supply missions in nine months.

Last, October an Antares rocket built by Virginia’s Orbital Sciences Corporation using refurbished Soviet engines exploded into a giant fireball on the platform. In April, a Russian Progress freighter lost contact in orbit, and burned up upon re-entering the atmosphere. Both were cargo flights which were meant to re-supply the ISS.

READ MORE: SpaceX rocket to ISS disintegrates 2 minutes after launch (VIDEO)

“From a macro perspective this is something we have anticipated. We expected to lose some vehicles through the commercial program, though I didn’t think we would lose them in a one year timeframe,” admitted Gerstenmeier.

“There is little commonality across these three platforms, other than this is space. We are operating equipment at the limit of its ability to perform, and it requires a tremendous amount of engineering skill, precision, and hardware.”

All eyes will be on the next Russian Progress launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on July 3, which has already been moved to an earlier date to compensate for previous mission failures. The next manned flight to the station will be later next month, when an international crew will travel up in the Soyuz module.