Orbital Names AIB Members, Focuses on Event Timeline

Orbital Names AIB Members, Focuses on Event Timeline

Orbital Sciences Corporation today named the individuals serving on the Accident Investigation Board (AIB) it is leading to determine the cause of the launch failure of its Antares rocket last week.  The Board’s first focus is creating a timeline of events that led to the loss of the Cygnus spacecraft and the 5,050 pounds of cargo it was transporting to the International Space Station (ISS).

Antares lifted off from its launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA last Tuesday (October 28) at 6:22 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  Everything seemed fine for the first 15 seconds, but then the first stage failed.   The rocket was destroyed by the Range Safety Officer moments later.  Suspicion centers on the two AJ26 first stage engines, which are refurbished Russian NK33 engines built more than 40 years ago, but as Orbital President and CEO David Thompson cautioned last week, first impressions are not always correct.

The launch was Orbital’s third operational ISS cargo resupply mission for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.  The members of the AIB are all from Orbital and NASA, except for Wayne Hale, an independent consultant, although he is retired from NASA.

  • David Steffy, Chief Engineer, Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group (chairman)
  • David Swanson, Senior Director of Safety and Mission Assurance, Orbital’s Technical Operations organization
  • Wayne Hale, Independent Consultant and former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager
  • David Cooper, Independent Readiness Review Team, Orbital’s Launch Systems Group
  • Eric Wood, Director of Propulsion Engineering, Orbital’s Launch Systems Group
  • Tom Costello, Launch Vehicle Assessment Manager, ISS Program, NASA Johnson Space Center
  • Matt Lacey, Senior Vehicle Systems Engineer, NASA Launch Services Program

The AIB is overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), specifically by:

  • Michael Kelly, Chief Engineer, FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST)
  • Marcus Ward, Mishap Response Coordinator, FAA/AST

This launch did not carry any crew, one of the many differences between it and the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2) on October 31.  That crash investigation is headed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  One of the two SS2 pilots died in that incident.

Orbital and NASA officials have said that the Antares launch site was not badly damaged in the October 28 launch failure.  Orbital’s Wallops-based personnel spent the weekend cataloging debris and moving it to a NASA facility on Wallops Island for secure and weather resistant storage.  The AIB is busy developing a fault-tree and timeline of key events during the launch and reconciling data from multiple sources. 

Thompson said last week that he expects a likely cause to be determined within “days not weeks,” though it will take longer to identify the root cause.  He could not estimate when Antares launches would resume other than to say that the next launch, originally scheduled for April 2015, would be delayed between three months in a best case scenario or, he hopes, not more than a year.

This third cargo launch to ISS, Orb-3, was part of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to send 20 tons of supplies to the ISS through 2016.  It was the fifth launch of Antares; the first four were successful.  This launch was delayed by one day because a sailboat 40 miles off the Virginia coast was in a restricted zone that had to be clear of vessels due to range safety considerations.

Orbital said on Friday that it has begun developing a “comprehensive plan to maintain the cargo supply line between Earth” and the ISS.  

SpaceX is the other U.S. company that delivers cargo to ISS for NASA.   One of its Dragon spacecraft just returned from the ISS and the next is scheduled for launch on December 9.  Russian and Japanese cargo spacecraft also resupply ISS crews.  A Russian Progress cargo spacecraft arrived at the ISS last Wednesday on a regularly scheduled flight.

NASA has not been able to take cargo or people to the ISS itself since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.

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