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SpaceX Falcon rocket fails on 19th flight

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jun 28, 2015, 23:31 UTC, Updated Jun 29, 2015, 4:18 UTC

Sen—A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket failed minutes after liftoff Sunday, claiming a Dragon capsule loaded with cargo for the International Space Station.

After a trouble-free countdown, the rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:21 a.m. (1421 UTC) and soared out over the Atlantic Ocean heading toward space.

But SpaceX ground controllers lost contact with the rocket two minutes and 19 seconds later, just before the rocket's first stage was slated to separate and make a landing attempt on a platform in the ocean. 

It was not to be. The rocket exploded in the sky, victim to what appeared to be an overpressurized oxygen tank in its upper stage, SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said later on Twitter.

"This was a tough day," NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier told reporters at a press conference. "We lost a lot of research equipment on this flight."

The accident was the second in a row for cargo ships heading to the station, which currently has enough food and supplies onboard to last until October, program managers told reporters before launch.

Russia lost a Progress cargo ship in April and plans a reflight on Friday.

A second company hired by NASA to resupply the station had a launch accident in October. Orbital ATK bought a rocket ride on a United Launch Alliance Atlas to send a Cygnus capsule to the station later this year. It is redesigning its Antares rocket and plans to return to flight in 2016.

“We are disappointed in the loss of the latest SpaceX cargo resupply mission," NASA administrator  Charlie Bolden said in a statement.

"We will work closely with SpaceX to understand what happened, fix the problem and return to flight," he added. 

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said she expects Falcon 9 to be grounded for "a number of months, or so" while an accident investigation is under way. 

"We must find the cause of the failure. We must fix it and we obviously are goig to get back to flight," Shotwell said.

How the accident will impact SpaceX's ambitious launch schedule is unknown. The company was making its seventh flight of the year -- surpassing its six-flight 2014 schedule -- when the accident occurred. It also recently won certification of the Falcon 9 to fly military payloads. 

"SpaceX has had an unprecedented launch success record, and I hope this does not deter the Air Force from seeking out reliable and affordable launch options," Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, wrote in an email.