I was downtown Toronto this morning, dressed in a suit and holding my umbrella to stay dry and navigate the city streets as they were soaked with rain. I was headed to the CBC building on John street to do an interview about the SpaceX CRS-7 mission that would launch an hour later. This would be a very important mission, the seventh of twelve ISS resupply missions contracted by NASA. It was also the third attempt at a secondary goal – landing the first stage launch vehicle, the Falcon 9 rocket, upright on an ocean platform, a feat that had spectacularly failed twice before. Suddenly the producer called to inform me that the piece would be delayed due to another developing story. He asked if I could stay downtown for awhile to comment on the launch after it happened, around 11:40am EDT. I brought along some work to keep me busy, so I set up shop at a local coffee house and got to work with the launch feed on in the background.
As the launch proceeded, I had my sights set on the landing and how soon the results of the landing attempt would come in. Another perfect launch, all systems look good, okay let’s actually enjoy watching the stage separate. And then everything went wrong. I noticed a large amount of smoke coming off of the rocket as it reached an altitude of 45 Km, and only a couple seconds later, the entire rocket was enveloped and it disappeared.
My first reaction was pure shock. “Did that just happen?” Once I confirmed that I wasn’t crazy, twitter exploded with initial reactions and information that something had gone wrong during the first stage separation of the rocket. So much for the landing on the ocean platform, now SpaceX has some bigger problems.
I called the producer at CBC and we discussed the future interview. It was good I was on standby, but I wasn’t looking forward to talking about the somber results of another failed supply mission to the ISS, the second in as many months since the loss of the Russian Progress Spacecraft in April.
I went in and gave my initial thoughts about the loss of the 5,000 Kg of cargo and the blow it dealt to the future of spaceflight and SpaceX. I also gave reassurance that the astronauts aboard the ISS were not in any danger of running out of supplies, and that resupply missions launch regularly.
I truly feel for the scientists and engineers who put such effort into their experiments to be able to have them sent into space, only to see all their work disappear in an instant. It will be another major setback for manned private spaceflight operations. In fact the largest blow may be the loss of a specially outfitted docking port adapter which would allow Boeing and SpaceX to dock manned spacecraft to the ISS, becoming the first private organizations to ferry astronauts, and releasing the world’s dependence on the Russian Soyuz rockets.
Until NASA and SpaceX look at the flight data, we likely won’t see any new data that can shed light on what went wrong this morning. but One thing I did say in my interview, and one thing I truly believe, is that the problem will be identified, it will be fixed, and future SpaceX missions will succeed. Space is hard, but not impossible. Humanity will return to space, but only when we have proven we are ready.