Vid Reps from NASA and Orbital Sciences have been furiously explaining themselves at a press conference in the wake of the destruction of Orbital's Antares rocket – and possibly the partial loss of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
"It's a really tough business," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. "Tonight's events show the difficulties in doing the task of delivering cargo to the space station. We have confidence we can understand the problems and get back flying when we're ready to fly."
Countdown to disaster
According to Orbital Sciences' general manager Frank Culbertson, the Antares rocket lifted off from Wallops at 6:22pm Eastern Time but within ten seconds it was clear something went wrong. The base of the rocket exploded and it began to fall, at which point it was detonated by the range safety officer.
Culbertson said that the first stage of the rocket was fueled with liquid oxygen and kerosene, most of which is expected to have burned off fairly quickly. The second stage is powered by a solid propellant that may have burned in the accident. The spacecraft also carried highly toxic hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide.
Under the circumstances NASA is warning the public not to go souvenir hunting and said that if strange debris does appear on someone's property, they should not to touch or go near it. Members of the public who think they have found some of the rocket should call +1 757 824 1295 to reach the incident response team.
There are no reports of fatalities or injuries and NASA had already cleared people from any possible danger area before the launch. Some stupid sailors delayed the launch by misreading the weather and should count themselves very lucky.
But the Wallops launch pad appears to have taken serious damage, although some parts of the facility - in particular the rocket preparation area – appear to be undamaged based on the instrument readings NASA is getting.
We won't know much more about the state of the launch pad until the morning. Fire crews have established a cordon zone around the facility but won't be going in until the morning when they can see what they are doing and when – hopefully – the fires have finished burning.
Culbertson said that the rocket itself was worth a little over $200m and was partially insured. The damage to the launch facility itself could also be very pricey to fix, but NASA will release more details as they become available.
At dawn tomorrow investigators from Orbital Sciences, NASA, and the Federal Aviation Administration will move onto the site with the fire crews and begin cataloging the damage and the nearby debris field. Nothing will be moved initially until every piece of wreckage and its position can be placed and marked.
No pad, no launches for you!
How long it takes to rebuild the launch pad is going to be critical to Orbital Science's space ambitions. Wallops is the only facility that can handle the Antares hardware and without it the company is grounded.
The Antares rocket was due to have resupplied the International Space Station and was carrying 2,290 kilograms of science experiments, basic supplies, spare parts, and new hardware for the astronauts. Culbertson publicly apologized to the scientists involved for losing their experiments.
Mike Suffredini, NASA’s International Space Station program manager, said that because of the agency's forward planning the ISS was equipped with enough supplies to last until at least March 2015. Wednesday's crew replacement mission will take off from Baikonur spaceport in Russia as planned and on December 9 SpaceX is due to launch a new supply mission up to the station.
"We were beaming the feed of the launch up to the crew of the ISS as it happened so they witnessed the event," Suffredini said. "Naturally they are disappointed but they are professionals and the team will work through this. Obviously they know they have enough supplies in orbit."
The disaster will, however, require some changes to the SpaceX delivery. A large canister of nitrogen was on board the Antares rocket and a similar load of oxygen was due to go up on SpaceX, but the nitrogen is more important so Suffredini said it will be added to the December manifest, along with a few other minor items.
Sorry to hear about the @OrbitalSciences launch. Hope they recover soon.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 28, 2014
Cause and effect
As for the cause of the explosion itself, the unanimous agreement of the press conference protagonists was that it's too early to tell.
After repeated questions on the subject from the press Culbertson became somewhat testy, saying that at this stage everyone has the same video evidence with which to develop a hypothesis. The telemetry data is not yet available and will examined forensically come the (US time) morning, he said.
One possibility raised was that the fault may have been with the AJ26 first-stage rocket engine, given that one of them blew up during testing in May. Culbertson said that nothing had been ruled out but that it was too early to comment.
The AJ26, provided by California company Aerojet, is a rebuilt NK-33 rocket engine designed by the then-Soviet Kuznetsov Design Bureau. Aerojet purchased several of the rockets in the mid-1990s, plus a license to produce more, and they are one of the most powerful rocket engines currently in use.
Parts of the rocket's first stage are produced for Aerojet under contract by the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau in the Ukraine, which has more experience with liquid oxygen fueled engines than Aerojet.
Culbertson was unwilling to give an estimate on how long the investigation into the rocket failure would take, pointing out (rightly) that such investigations usually took much longer than first predicted. More details will be released as soon as they are forthcoming he said.
"It's a tough time to lose a launch vehicle like this," said Culbertson, a former astronaut and commander of the ISS. "It's not as tragic as losing a life and we're happy to report our safeguards worked and all we lost was the cargo."
"Something went wrong and we will find out what that is and correct that. Then we'll come back to fly from Wallops again." ®