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Last Sunday, an unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying 5,200 pounds of supplies and equipment lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Like many successful SpaceX missions before it, the vehicle was bound for the International Space Station.
For more than two minutes, the mission — operated by SpaceX through its contract with NASA — was going as planned. The data sent back from the vehicle showed that the performance of the rocket was “nominal" — space-speak for "normal."
That changed quickly.
For those of us watching on NASA TV or on the SpaceX webcast, it was instantly clear what happened: The vehicle experienced a rapid and catastrophic failure. In seconds, the Falcon rocket and the Dragon orbital vehicle broke up. Everything aboard was lost.
There’s no denying that the failure of this mission is disappointing. But these things happen. Space is a risky business. NASA and SpaceX will learn from this failure together. They will figure it out. And then we will and must get back to the business of sending cargo missions to the space station — and eventually, sending Americans into space on U.S.-made spaceships.
The risk is always there
Launching rockets to space is a really difficult thing to do. It's likely to be so for a very long time. Doing it successfully requires us to push the upward limits of physics and engineering. After all, flying to space is so difficult that few countries even dare try it.
As my brother astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted from aboard the space station, where he is more than three months into his yearlong mission, "Space is hard."
Unfortunately, my brother is right.
Throughout America’s space program, we have always worked to reduce the risk inherent in propelling objects off the planet. We can and do reduce the risk. But we can never eliminate it.
The space shuttle program, which ended in 2011, was no different. During the life of the program, each mission had a "demonstrated risk" — the risk that the end result would be likely death — of 1 in 67.5. The "calculated risk," or likelihood of a catastrophic failure for each mission, was thought to be 1 in 57.
Those of us who climbed into the orbiter and strapped in knew this. We knew that at the end of the day we would, more likely than not, be floating in space. But we also knew there was a non-zero probability we would die. It’s part of the business. There were mission failures and tragedies during the life of the shuttle program. But we learned from the setbacks, and we made the vehicle safer each time.
Like NASA, SpaceX has worked hard to limit the risk of its missions, and they have built a solid track record of safely sending commercial cargo missions to the space station and other payloads such as satellites into orbit — and at a much lower cost to our government than was ever done before.
The view from space
So what does the failure of this mission mean for the astronauts aboard the space station? I spoke to Scott in the aftermath of the supply mission’s failure, and he and his Russian crewmates are doing fine. While the cargo aboard the Falcon 9 rocket did contain important research experiments, supplies and new hardware, Scott and his fellow spacefliers have what they need to continue their work. There is no immediate impact on day-to-day operations.
Because NASA plans for these contingencies, there is also plenty of food and water. It’s not as if Scott and his crewmates have resorted to eating the ketchup and mustard packets. They’re a long ways from that.
(And yes, there are ketchup and mustard packets aboard the space station).
There is no doubt that this recent failure on the heels of two other unsuccessful resupply missions — the failure of an Orbital Sciences mission at launch last fall and a Russian Progress resupply vehicle that spun out of control after reaching orbit this spring — makes the success of the next missions all the more vital.
But it would be a mistake to see a common thread in these recent setbacks. Each one is probably the result of a different array of factors. And it would be a mistake to let this mission failure deter us from our country's goal of having commercial missions launch Americans to space.
We need to get back to the business of Americans sending Americans to the space station. There is no doubt in my mind that companies like SpaceX and the Boeing Co. will be the ones to do it — and safely.
We will learn some valuable lessons from these mishaps. And then it will be time to get back to the risky but worthy endeavor of expanding America’s space program and our reach into the solar system.
Captain Mark Kelly is an NBC News and MSNBC space and aviation contributor. The husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, he is a retired U.S. Navy combat veteran, test pilot and NASA astronaut. Kelly has served on an independent safety advisory panel for SpaceX.