I have been to and witnessed a number of launches in the last 11 years I have lived in Florida but today was the first time I witnessed the complete loss of the launch vehicle during ascent.
Last week I wrote about HoloLens being part of the cargo of the SpaceX CRS7 mission and that I was going to head down to witness the launch. It was a great way to merge a couple of my passions, technology, motorcycle riding and rocket launches.
So I was up at dawn this morning and had an uneventful ride down to the Cape Canaveral Seashore when I parked with a direct line of sight to LC 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) at a distance of about 7 miles.
Alongside of me was an amateur videographer who has perfected his own telescopic tracking device to record video of launches that is comparable to the video we see on NASA TV during launches.
As SpaceX worked through the last 45 minutes of the countdown everything was on track with no technical issues and the weather was spectacular.
Slowly the count down hit T-0 and the Falcon 9 engines fired and began she began her ascent to orbit with her cargo - including many important items but also Microsoft's HoloLens.
As I watched the launch through my Nikon D5100 DSLR 200mm zoom lens everything looked normal and Falcon began picking up speed as she started her northwest track to ultimately catch up with ISS on Tuesday.
Suddenly in my viewfinder there was a puff of white and then that cloud started to spread and get bigger.
Initially I wasn't sure what to think. I knew that was not normal but it does not sink in initially. Then the radio we were listening to mentioned the explosion and launch vehicle. My heart sank a few seconds later when someone on the radio channel we were monitoring from CCAFS said there had been an anomaly and the vehicle appeared to be lost.
It was surreal after watching so many launches to witness an event like this and in hindsight I imagine this feeling, amplified many - many times, was what people felt as they witnessed the Challenger explosion shortly after her launch. Thankfully this was an unmanned launch but it still left a pit in my stomach because I understand the impact of the loss of her cargo.
Below you will find an amateur video, courtesy of Jim Rehkopf, that he took of the explosion using a rig he has developed over many years to use a telescope to track and film launches from Cape Canaveral.
As you can see it appears that a tank in the upper part of the rocket failed/exploded. The large white cloud is cold liquid oxygen and as it spreads back towards the still burning Stage 1 rocket motors the vehicle is destroyed by the Range Safety Officer.
Apparently it was an over pressurization of a tank in the upper stage of the rocket according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Whatever the cause I have no doubt that SpaceX will figure it out and address the issue.
Space is tough business.
Although it does not make the loss of the vehicle and its cargo any easier to take, this is SpaceX's first loss in 18 launches so they have done well up to this point. The true success of this failure will not be measured in what was loss on the vehicle but how SpaceX moves forward and learns from it.