CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - 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. He said it was not clear how the disaster occurred or even when the rocket actually failed. Data stopped flowing from the Falcon 9 rocket around 2 minutes and 19 seconds, he said. No astronauts were on board.
The rocket appeared to break apart while traveling at 2,900 mph, about 27 miles up.
Astronaut Scott Kelly watched the failed launch from the International Space Station.
The California-based SpaceX was trying to figure out what happened, noting that everything appeared to go well in flight until the rocket went supersonic.
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. SpaceX is one of the contenders.
The seven previous SpaceX supply runs, dating back to 2012, had gone exceedingly well.
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 three space station residents were watching the launch live from orbit.
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.
Colorado ladybug experiment aboard rocket
A local 5th grade's science experiment involving ladybugs in space was destroyed in the rocket explosion.
Students at Mount Carbon Elementary School in Littleton, Colorado had hoped to grow ladybugs aboard the International Space Station and compare their growth to a control group of ladybugs back in Colorado.
A single ladybug can eat up to 5,000 aphids, which means they're invaluable to farmers trying to control an aphid population without the use of harsh chemicals. At the present time experiments are being done in space to learn how to best grow food for possible colonization on Mars or future suitable planets. The ladybug may be helpful to control pests in space gardens. The experiment was to learn if micro gravity affects the lifecycle of a ladybug.
Russia expects to take another crack at launching supplies on Friday from Kazakhstan.
SpaceX -- led by billionaire Elon Musk, who also heads up electric car maker Tesla -- 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 noted via Twitter that the rocket "experienced a problem 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.
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.
The following is a statement from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the loss Sunday of the SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services 7 (CRS-7) mission.
“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.”