The unmanned SpaceX rocket that exploded only a couple of minutes after liftoff Sunday morning from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida carried more than supplies to the astronauts at the International Space Station.
It also contained a science experiment long in the making by students at Rocky Mountain College. The Algae Growth and Remediation Project had a spot reserved on the space station for at least a month.
Three of the students who worked on the project and their adviser, Andy Wildenberg, an associate professor of computer science at Rocky, were on hand to watch the launch.
“Obviously we’re disappointed that our experiment was lost, but we are very glad that nobody was hurt,” Wildenberg said when reached by telephone on Sunday morning.
Wildenberg and the others had attended a reception at the center on Saturday. On Sunday morning the group, considered VIPs for the launch, arrived at 7:30 a.m. EDT and were taken to a site three miles from the launch pad where they were included in a briefing, he said.
“(Astronaut) Buzz Aldrin was there, and we got pictures of the team with him,” Wildenberg said.
Then came the launch, which appeared to go off perfectly, he said. Watching the rocket soar into space was exhilarating and much different than watching it on TV, Wildenberg said.
“News cameras can’t really capture how bright the flame is on the rocket and what it feels like to have the sound impact you even though you’re three miles away,” he said. “It was a very amazing experience.”
The explosion happened about 2 1/2 minutes into the flight from Cape Canaveral, the Associated Press reported. Wildenberg said he and the others saw a puff of smoke, and they assumed it was a stage separation.
“It wasn’t until we came back into the briefing and people started using the world ‘anomaly,’ which is just a big euphemism for ‘it broke up,’ that we knew,” he said. “It just got very quiet.”
At that point in the day, Wildenberg hadn’t heard many details about what went wrong with the rocket.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket shattered while traveling at 2,900 mph, about 27 miles up. Everything seemed to be going well until the rocket went supersonic.
"We appear to have had a launch vehicle failure," announced NASA commentator George Diller.
Data stopped flowing from the Falcon 9 rocket around 2 minutes and 19 seconds, he said.
SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk later said that the pressure got too high in the liquid-oxygen tank of the rocket's upper stage.
"That's all we can say with confidence right now," Musk said via Twitter.
The private company is in charge of the accident investigation, with oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration, which licensed the flight.
The Dragon capsule, which is designed to eventually carry people, still sent signals to the ground after the rocket broke apart, said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. Had astronauts been on board, a still-being tested abort system, would have whisked them away to safety in such a mishap, she said.
The good news for the Rocky contingent is that all of the work the students put into the experiment hasn’t gone up in smoke. Two more copies of the experiment are ready in Billings “that we could launch tomorrow,” Wildenberg said.
The experiment is designed to see if algae grown in gel-like agar could supply the International Space Station with oxygen and remove carbon dioxide more efficiently than is done now. If so, it could decrease the weight of life support supplies needed in space.
Wildenberg is hopeful the experiment will find a spot on a later rocket to the space station. In the meantime, parallel ground experiments that had been planned at Rocky will go on.
“We’ve got plenty of work to do this summer,” he said.