Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares Rocket Crashes Moments After Liftoff – Updated

Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares Rocket Crashes Moments After Liftoff – Updated

This article is updated throughout.

Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket crashed moments after liftoff at 6:22 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) today, October 28, 2014, from Wallops Island, VA.  The rocket was carrying a Cygnus spacecraft loaded with supplies, experiments and equipment for the International Space Station (ISS) on Orbital’s third operational cargo mission to the ISS, Orb-3.

No one was injured and it appears that damage was confined to the southern portion of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility near the launch pad.  Orbital launches Antares from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops.

During a press conference following the explosion, Orbital Vice President (and former astronaut) Frank Culbertson and three NASA officials stressed that it is too early to know what went wrong or how much damage was sustained to the launch pad and surrounding facilities.  Orbital will lead the investigation and analysis has begun already, but an inspection of the damaged areas and debris field must wait until daybreak.  NASA Wallops Director Bill Wrobel stressed that people should not touch any debris that is found and instead should call 757-824-1295 to report it.

Videos of the accident are posted on YouTube from various vantage points, including this one that shows the failure as it happens.

Culbertson said that the failure began about 10-12 seconds after liftoff and range safety officials issued a destruct command about 20 seconds after liftoff.  The exact timing and sequence of events is not yet known, however.  Orbital will analyze telemetry and imagery as part of its investigation. 

The message from Culbertson, NASA Human Exploration and Operations Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier, and NASA ISS program manager Mike Suffredini is that the cause of the accident will be determined, the problem fixed, and Antares will fly again.  Gerstenmaier also said that “no cargo that was absolutely critical was lost” and the ISS crew is not in any danger.  Suffredini also stressed that the ISS crew has sufficient supplies to last through next March and, in any case, there are other cargo spacecraft capable of taking supplies to them including a Russian Progress spacecraft that will be launched tomorrow.  So while everyone is disappointed about the failure and the loss of what was aboard, it will not have a significant impact on the crew’s welfare or activities.

The first stage of the Antares, which was operating at the time of the accident, is powered by two AJ26 engines.  The AJ26 is a refurbished Russian NK33 engine built over 40 years ago.  The engines were imported to the United States and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne.  When asked why Orbital chose to use such an old design, Culbertson said that the engines were extensively tested and are “rugged and robust.”  These engines showed no signs of anomalies during that testing, he said, adding that is it not yet known if the engines were at fault.

Cygnus was carrying 5,050 pounds of experiments, spare parts, and other supplies to the 6-person ISS crew as well as a few commercial payloads.  Suffredini said the crew was notified immediately about the accident, but they were watching it in any case.  Culbertson said the cost of the rocket and spacecraft was about $200 million and that Orbital carried “some” insurance for the launch, but was not specific about the amount.  Orbital conducts these launches under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  When asked if the company would have to pay to refly the mission under that contract, Suffredini answered only vaguely that the contract was set up for such contingencies and NASA would work with Orbital to get the hardware replaced.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the Science and Space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, issued a statement that while there will be “setbacks,” “our commercial space ventures will ultimately be successful.”

Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chairmen of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee respectively, said they add their “disappointment to the thousands in the space community who worked tirelessly” in support of the launch, are relieved there were no reported fatalities, and “anticipate learning more … in the near future.”

Orbital is one of two U.S. companies that provide ISS cargo services for NASA.   SpaceX is the other and one of its Dragon spacecraft just returned from the ISS on Saturday.  The next SpaceX launch is scheduled for December 9.  Suffredini said that NASA may make some small adjustments to the cargo manifest for the SpaceX launch to compensate for the loss of equipment on this flight.   Orbital and SpaceX developed their “commercial cargo” space transportation systems as public-private partnerships with NASA where the government and the companies both put money into the project.  Both companies’ systems are now operational and the services are provided to NASA as a commercial service.

In addition to the two U.S. companies and Russia, Japan also sends cargo spacecraft to the ISS.  Europe has in the past, but its final cargo spacecraft, ATV-5, is currently docked to the ISS.  The United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada are all partners in the ISS program.

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