Ex­plo­sion dur­ing fu­el­ing de­stroys SpaceX rocket

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD FROM PAGE ONE - By Mar­cia Dunn

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A mas­sive fire­ball and ex­plo­sion erupted Thurs­day at SpaceX’s main launch pad, de­stroy­ing a rocket as well as a satel­lite that Face­book was count­ing on to spread in­ter­net ser­vice in Africa.

There were no in­juries. The pad had been cleared of work­ers be­fore what was sup­posed to be a rou­tine pre-launch rocket en­gine test.

SpaceX chief Elon Musk said the ac­ci­dent hap­pened while the rocket was be­ing fu­eled and orig­i­nated around the up­per-stage oxy­gen tank. “Cause still un­known,” Musk said via Twit­ter. “More soon.”

The ex­plo­sion — heard and felt for miles — dealt a se­vere blow to SpaceX, still scram­bling to catch up with satel­lite de­liv­er­ies fol­low­ing a launch ac­ci­dent last year. It’s also a set­back for NASA, which has been re­ly­ing on the pri­vate space com­pany to keep the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion stocked with sup­plies and, ul­ti­mately, as­tro­nauts.

SpaceX was pre­par­ing for the test fir­ing of its un­manned Fal­con rocket when the blast hap­pened at Cape Canaveral Air Force Sta­tion. The test was in advance of Satur­day’s planned launch of an Is­raeli-made com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lite to pro­vide home in­ter­net for parts of sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa and the Mid­dle East.

A video of the ex­plo­sion shows a fire­ball en­velop­ing the top of the rocket. Mo­ments later, the nose cone con­tain­ing the satel­lite plunged to the ground, fol­lowed by more ex­plo­sions.

Build­ings four miles away shook from the blast, and a se­ries of ex­plo­sions con­tin­ued for sev­eral min­utes. Dark smoke filled the over­cast sky. A launch site in Cape Canaveral, Fla., burns on Thurs­day af­ter an ex­plo­sion de­stroyed a rocket and a satel­lite.

Video cam­eras showed smoke com­ing from the re­stricted site well into late af­ter­noon. Most of the rocket was still stand­ing, al­though the top third or so was clearly bent over.

The ex­plo­sion oc­curred at Launch Com­plex 40 at the Air Force sta­tion, right next door to NASA’s Kennedy Space Cen­ter, where emer­gency staff went on standby and mon­i­tored the air for any toxic fumes. The Air Force stressed there was no threat to public safety in the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties

Face­book spokesman Chris Nor­ton said the so­cial me­dia com­pany was “dis­ap­pointed by the loss, but re­main com­mit­ted to our mis­sion of con­nect­ing peo­ple to the in­ter­net around the world.” Founder Mark Zucker­berg was in Kenya on Thurs­day, dis­cussing in­ter­net ac­cess with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials.

The satel­lite’s Is­raelibased op­er­a­tor, Space­com, said the loss will have “a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact” on the com­pany. Last Novem­ber, ground con­trollers lost con­tact with the pre­vi­ous satel­lite in this so-called Amos se­ries. Space­com said the new satel­lite was sup­posed to pro­vide ser­vices to tele­vi­sion and in­ter­net op­er­a­tors.

The Fal­con rocket de­stroyed Thurs­day is the same kind used to launch space sta­tion sup­plies. The last such flight took place in July.

SpaceX, one of two com­pa­nies mak­ing de­liv­er­ies, is also work­ing on a crew cap­sule to ferry U.S. as­tro­nauts to the sta­tion.

In a state­ment later, NASA said the space agency re­mains con­fi­dent in its com­mer­cial part­ners, SpaceX in­cluded. NASA­said it re­mains on track for next Thurs­day’s launch of an as­teroid-chas­ing and sam­pling space­craft, the first of its kind for the U.S.

SpaceX had been ramp­ing up with fre­quent launches to make up for a back­log cre­ated by a launch ac­ci­dent in June 2015. In that mishap, a sup­port strut ev­i­dently snapped in the up­per stage; the prob­lem was fixed.

Un­til Thurs­day, the com­pany had suc­cess­fully car­ried out eight launches this year, with nine more in the wings by year’s end, in­clud­ing the de­but flight of the so-called Fal­con Heavy. Now that lineup is in jeop­ardy.

Sen. Bill Nel­son, D-Fla., whose sin­gle space shut­tle flight ended 10 days be­fore the Chal­lenger dis­as­ter in 1986, said in a state­ment that the SpaceX ac­ci­dent “re­minds us all that space flight is an in­her­ently risky busi­ness.”


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