The Antares rocket exploded seconds into its planned launch at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Tuesday, Oct. 28. Thankfully, there were no reported casualties at the scene.The horror of watching a massive rocket explode over the Eastern Shore on Oct. 28 was only mitigated by the fact that no one was reported to have been injured at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility on the nearby Eastern Shore of Virginia.
Only seconds into the 6:22 p.m. launch, the unmanned Antares rocket — carrying 5,000 pounds of equipment, supplies and experiments to the International Space Station (ISS) — appeared to have successfully lifted off, but within seconds faltered and exploded back to earth in an enormous fireball.
“What we know so far is pretty much what everybody saw in the video. It looked like some disassembly on the first stage, and then it fell to earth,” said Frank Culbertson, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital Science's Advanced Programs Group. “Most of this happened in the first 20 seconds of flight, and it was pretty quick.”
The explosion was part failure, but part mission control.
“We observed the failure in telemetry [data readings] and visually,” Culbertson said. “Then the range safety officer sent the destruct command.”
The official timeline was still being reconstructed mid-week, so officials couldn't say how much time passed between the anomaly and the destruction order.
Fire crews initially set up a perimeter around the launch pad, letting the contained fires burn out.
“We plan for the possibility of a failed launch attempt,” said Bill Wrobel, director of the Wallops Flight Facility. “Our job, first and foremost, is to guarantee safety.”
The public not only witnessed the explosion from television and computer monitors, but also many public locations along the Eastern Shore. At the Visitors Center on Wallops Island, guests were immediately evacuated.
Traffic exiting the island after the incident was heavy, as hundreds, if not thousands, of vehicles crawled out of town on a two-lane highway. Dusk fell over a massive, 11,000-plus-foot plume of smoke, which was picked up by National Weather Service radar and could be seen easily in Ocean City, Md.
With no humans injured in the incident, officials turned their attention to the Antares ship, designed by Orbital to carry the Cygnus spacecraft.
“It's a tough time to lose a launch vehicle and a payload, but … the safeguards on the ground worked as they should, and all we lost was hardware,” Culbertson said. “That hardware, however, is very important and is very valuable to our team and our customers.”
Physically, most of the damage was confined to the launch pad area. As it is the only pad certified for launching the Antares rocket, repairing it is a top priority.
The rocket and craft itself were worth more than $200 million.
Orbital's contract with NASA includes compensation in case the mission doesn't succeed.
“All of these things can be replaced and will be over time,” said Michael Suffredini, manager of NASA's ISS program.
This was Orbital Sciences' third contracted resupply mission, carrying 5,000 pounds of science equipment and food to the International Space Station.
Meanwhile the ISS crew won't starve. Even if no more launches occurred this year, their food, water and supplies could carry them “well into next year,” possibly into March.
Meanwhile, two launches were already scheduled from other locations elsewhere in the world, including the launch of a Russian rocket that was scheduled for Oct. 29 and successfully brought its cargo to the ISS that morning.
The manifests of future launches may be slightly rearranged after this loss of equipment, officials noted, such as a nitrogen tank taking the place of an oxygen tank on the next flight.
More than 200 miles above earth, the ISS crew witnessed the launch electronically.
“We will continue to do the research,” Suffredini said. “We've got plenty of work for them to do on orbit and plenty of supplies for them on orbit.”
The Tuesday launch would have placed the Cygnus spacecraft at the space station on Sunday, Nov. 2. The original launch time on Monday evening had been rescheduled when a boat couldn't exit the safety range in time.
Investigation scene: Don't touch
Orbital will lead the investigation with a three-pronged approach: locate and tag debris from the accident site; study the data sent from points within the rocket (telemetry); and re-watch dozens of video feeds. But the need to collect the debris is about more than figuring out what happened.
“This is an accident site, and it is a rocket. It has a lot of hazardous materials on board that people should not be looking for or wanting to collect souvenirs,” Culbertson said. “If you find anything washed ashore … or in your farm or in your yard, contact local authorities and do not touch it, and keep people away from it.”
As fuel spilled in the first stage of the rocket launch, the kerosene burned, and liquid oxygen will eventually dissipate. But the hypergolic rocket fuel must be handled properly, which is why the public must not touch the debris, he said.
Although cause of the failure had not been determined as of Wednesday, officials defended the older engine design of the rocket, which had originally been designed to carry cosmonauts to the moon. It was refurbished for the American space industry and underwent extensive tests before launch.
“It's a big disappointment to not be able to successfully deliver that cargo, but we will do that in the future,” said Culbertson, thanking other agencies for their assistance.
“Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback. Today's launch attempt will not deter us,” wrote William “Bill” Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA's Human Exploration & Operations Directorate. He praised Orbital's earlier successful missions, “and we know they can replicate that success.”
“Something went wrong, and we will determine what that is,” Culbertson said. “We will correct that, and we will fly here at Wallops again.”
Ongoing updates on the incident will be provided to the public through social media and www.nasa.gov.
“If people do find any debris or anything that might be suspect, anything that does not look familiar,” Wrobel said, they should stay away, and call the incident response team at (757) 824-1295.