On May 8, 1962, NASA’s new Centaur rocket exploded in mid-air during its first test flight. The Centaur was an upper stage specially designed to launch heavier payloads into orbit. For its first launch, it flew on an Atlas rocket booster.
The liftoff from Cape Canaveral went well at first. Then 54 seconds later, the Centaur suddenly exploded. Both the Centaur and the Atlas disintegrated at an altitude of nearly 30,000 feet (9,000 meters).
An investigation determined that the insulation panels around the liquid hydrogen fuel tank couldn’t withstand the pressure during the flight, so the tank ruptured. This was the first rocket launch to use liquid hydrogen in its propulsion system.
NASA redesigned the Centaur and launched its first successful test flight the following year. Different versions of the Centaur have since been used to launch missions throughout the solar system.
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