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SpaceX Still Looking for Cause of Falcon 9 Failure as Russia Readies Next Progress

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jul-2015
Updated: 02-Jul-2015 05:22 AM

SpaceX continues to sort through reams of data to determine what happened on June 28 to its Falcon 9 rocket that was to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).  A SpaceX spokesman said there is "no one theory yet that is consistent with the data" they have looked at so far.   Meanwhile, Russia plans to launch its next cargo mission to the ISS, Progress M-28M, in less than 24 hours.  The launch comes just over two months after the previous mission, Progress M-27M, failed.

SpaceX's Falcon 9, carrying a Dragon capsule full of supplies for the ISS, failed 139 seconds into flight on Sunday, June 28.  It was the 19th Falcon 9 launch after 18 consecutive successes.  SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said shortly thereafter that "there were pressurization indications in the second stage" and the first stage is not suspect.

SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said via email late yesterday that the company's engineering teams are "reviewing every piece of flight data as we work through a thorough fault tree analysis in order to identify root cause."  After that is completed, it will know more about rescheduled launch dates.  Although some debris has been recovered from the ocean, the flight data is expected to hold the key to the cause.

Among the first launches affected by the failure is that of Jason-3 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.  The ocean altimetry satellite had been scheduled for launch on August 8 after several delays.  NOAA and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) are the lead agencies for Jason-3, partnered with NASA and its French counterpart, CNES, who were responsible for Jason-1 and Jason-2, as well as the original satellite in the series, Topex-Poseidon.  Jason-2, launched in 2008, continues to function nominally.

Sunday's launch was SpaceX's seventh robotic ISS cargo resupply mission under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA -- CRS-7 or SpX-7.  About two tons of crew supplies, scientific experiments and equipment was lost, including the first of two International Docking Adapters needed for the crew version of Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft to dock with the ISS.  They were the winners of the final phase of the commercial crew program and NASA hopes that the systems will be operational by the end of 2017.  The crew version of Dragon incorporates an abort system that can carry a crew to safety if the rocket fails, but it is not in the cargo version of Dragon used on Sunday.  No one was aboard Sunday's launch.

This was the third failure in 8 months of systems that take cargo to the ISS:  Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Oribtal ATK) Antares rocket with a Cygnus spacecraft on October 28, 2014; Russia's Soyuz rocket with the Progress M-27M capsule on April 28; and now SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon combination.

Russia plans to launch the next Progress resupply mission tomorrow, July 3, at 12:55 am Eastern Daylight Time.  Although NASA insists that the ISS crew has plenty of supplies to take them through to October, at least, a lot is riding on the success of the Progress M-28M flight (which NASA calls Progress 60 or 60P because it is the 60th Progress intended to supply the ISS).   The Russians concluded the April failure was due to a "design peculiarity" related to frequency-dynamic characteristics between the third stage of the Soyuz 2.1a rocket and the Progress spacecraft.

One advantage of the ISS program is that it is an international partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada.   Europe has discontinued its ATV cargo spacecraft, but there still are four systems to take cargo to the crew:  the U.S. Antares/Cygnus and Falcon 9/Dragon, Russia's Soyuz/Progress, and Japan's H2B/HTV.  It is extremely unusual that three of the four systems should fail over such a short span of months.

Fortunately, should anything go awry with Progress M-28M, Japan's HTV cargo spacecraft is scheduled for launch next month. 


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