"The vehicle has broken up," said NASA commentator George Diller, after NASA television broadcast images of the white rocket falling to pieces. "At this point it is not clear to the launch team exactly what happened," George Diller added.

The disaster was the first of its kind for the California-based company headed by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, who has led a series of successful launches even as competitor Orbital Sciences lost one of its rockets in an explosion in October, and a Russian supply ships was lost in April.

SpaceX's live webcast of the launch went silent about two minutes 19 seconds into the flight and soon after the rocket could be seen exploding and small pieces tumbling back toward Earth.

Moments later, a SpaceX commentator said the video link from the vehicle had been lost. "There was some kind of anomaly during first stage flight," the commentator said, noting that the rocket had ignited its nine Merlin engines and reached supersonic speed.

"However, it appears something did occur during first stage operations," he added, referring to the stage of rocket flight before the cargo ship would have been able to separate from the first stage of the rocket and reach orbit.

The Dragon cargo ship was carrying 4,000 pounds (1,800 kilograms) of gear to the space station, including a large parking space, known as an International Docking Adaptor, designed to make it easier for an array of commercial crew spacecraft to dock at the orbiting lab in the future.

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