Yesterday was an important day in the history of space flight: for the first time a commercial entity launched a resupply mission to the International Space Station. I thought it was a pretty big deal, but you'd never have known by watching the news yesterday. ABC news cut away from their coverage of politics and baseball just long enough to show a glowing ball heading skyward, with hardly any commentary. I watched the link via streaming video. It was, despite its historic significance, rather boring. A bright light heading to the sky. A bunch of guys sitting in front of a bunch of monitors. It could have been a LAN party. NASA's own coverage seemed mundane, especially considering how well they did recently in getting us interested in Curiosity.
I was apparently not watching closely enough. At about one minute, nineteen seconds into the flight there was a rather bright flash, and clear signs of debris falling from the rocket. Check it out!
In real time, the flash didn't seem all that serious, but when you see the 1/10x slow motion version, it looks pretty bad: a bright flash, with all sorts of apparent debris shedding. But perhaps we shouldn't have worried.
Approximately one minute and 19 seconds into last night's launch, the Falcon 9 rocket detected an anomaly on one first stage engine. Initial data suggests that one of the rocket's nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued. We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it. Panels designed to relieve pressure within the engine bay were ejected to protect the stage and other engines. Our review of flight data indicates that neither the rocket stage nor any of the other eight engines were negatively affected by this event.
SpaceX Mission Update
In other words, despite how it looks, there wasn't an explosion on board: the shutdown caused a plan ejection of panels. What we see isn't the problem: it's the cure. Pretty nifty bit of engineering. Still, I doubt I'm going to be booking my passage on a Dragon flight anytime soon.