Most rockets can withstand considerable friction and heat during launch, yet occasionally one will explode on either the launch pad or in space.
Millions of students watched as the Challenger disaster played out live on television, and seven astronauts lost their lives as a result of its explosion. Could such an outcome have been avoided?
SpaceX Falcon 9
SpaceX’s workhorse rocket, the 23-story Falcon 9 rocket and its payload — an AMOS-6 satellite designed to orbit Earth-sun L-2 Lagrange point — were both destroyed when they underwent an on-the-pad engine test at Cape Canaveral complex on September 1. The explosion took place during an on-the-pad engine test for Facebook-funded AMOS-6 satellite in orbit Earth-sun L-2 Lagrange point orbit.
SpaceX engineers are hard at work attempting to ascertain what happened, with only 93 milliseconds passing between initial signs of trouble and its spectacular explosion. SpaceX’s investigation team, comprising representatives from NASA, the FAA, industry experts and more is currently reviewing over 3,000 channels of engineering data, video footage and imagery from across their platform.
One year after the Falcon 9 explosion, one booster safely returned to Earth with an impeccable vertical landing at an Air Force missile site on Florida’s Atlantic coast. Following multiple attempts by SpaceX’s Block 5 version of Falcon 9, including attempts at sea and on land with different landing sites that proved unsuccessful, SpaceX finally succeeded with a spectacular ocean landing utilizing Block 5. Today it boasts 274 of 276 successful mission successes as of November 2023.
Orbital Sciences Antares
Orbital Sciences, an established member of the space community, may have suffered an embarrassing setback at NASA’s Wallops Island facility when one of its rockets exploded shortly after blastoff, leading to food, equipment and science experiments planned by schoolchildren being lost forever.
NASA released their accident report this week and identified one likely source for the explosion on board Antares: turbopumps in its kerosene-fueled AJ26 engines. NASA says these turbopumps failed due to friction between moving and stationary components within them causing friction which ultimately ignited an oxygen fire, but that acceptance testing wasn’t sufficient enough to detect such flaws; Orbital disagrees with this finding but says responsibility lies outside their company as they plan on replacing Soviet-era engines with modern versions made in Russia.
On June 4th 1996, Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket exploded within 40 seconds after leaving its jungle launch pad in French Guiana for its inaugural voyage carrying a science satellite called Cluster and Maqsat 3.
Failure was traced back to a software defect in the rocket’s inertial reference system, specifically during an incorrect conversion operation from 64 bit floating point numbers describing horizontal velocity relative to platform to 16-bit signed integer values.
There are not many longer videos of this event, but this one includes both the countdown announcer and ample footage of Ariane 5 exploding. Unfortunately, it was a costly failure and thus brought an end to Ariane 5’s long career of satellite launches into geostationary transfer orbit. Arianespace is currently developing Vinci upper stages that will increase Ariane 5’s GTO payload capability.
Space Shuttle Challenger
On January 28th 1986, just 73 seconds after take-off of Space Shuttle Challenger, an explosion took place that killed seven astronauts including Christa McAuliffe (from New Hampshire), who was to become first civilian astronaut. A rubber O-ring seal on one of its solid rocket boosters failed due to low temperatures at launch pad resulting in its rupture and subsequent explosion.
Stephen Nesbitt was in Mission Control updating the Shuttle’s position when he heard an explosive pop and saw smoke coming off its far side booster. An explosion caused by leakage gas caused the booster to disintegrate into pieces that crashed into the ocean below.
The Rogers Commission report faulted NASA and contractor Morton Thiokol, which produced solid rocket boosters, for poor engineering and management practices during this incident that resulted in two years’ delay of their shuttle program. All debris recovered from Challenger are displayed at Kennedy Space Center today.