Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Rocket Destroyed in SpaceX Explosion

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

Rocket Destroyed in SpaceX Explosion

Article excerpt

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 occurred 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 around - 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 shortly after 9 a.m. 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 half-hour later, a black cloud hung low across the eastern horizon.

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 initial blast sent NASA employees rushing outside to see what happened. The Air Force stressed there was no threat to public safety in the surrounding communities.

Because the pad was still burning, it remained off-limits to everyone as the afternoon wore on. "We want to make sure we isolate any potential problem, said Shawn Walleck, a spokesman for the Air Force's 45th Space Wing, "because at this point, we've had no casualties, we've had no injuries, and we want to keep it that way.

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 Israeli-based operator, Spacecom, said the loss will have "a significant impact on the company. Just last November, ground controllers lost contact with the previous satellite in this so-called Amos series. …

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