Rocket destined for International Space Station explodes during launch

This screen image from NASA-TV shows flames from the launch facility in Virginia where an Antares rocket headed for the International Space Station exploded shortly after launch.

Screen grab from NASA-TV

WALLOPS ISLAND, VA. — A resupply rocket destined for the International Space Station exploded on the launch pad Tuesday night.

The Antares rocket carrying Orbital Science’s Cygnus CRS-3 automated space craft had a massive failure just as it lifting off at about 5:22 p.m. It was carrying about 5,050-pounds of supplies and experiments, NASA officials said.

The Orb-3 mission was to be the fifth launch of the company’s Antares rocket in its first 18 months of operations and was to be the fourth cargo delivery mission to the space station by a Cygnus spacecraft.

This particular Cygnus was named the SS Deke Slayton, in honor of former NASA astronaut Donald “Deke” K. Slayton.

It was also the first launch of the Antares that had the larger, more powerful CASTOR 30XL second stage motor.

There were 18 student science experiments onboard the spacecraft as well. Two of those experiments were developed at Texas schools through the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

Fifth and sixth graders from Howsman Elementary and William P. Hobby Middle Schools in San Antonio had  crystal formation experiment aboard.

Also, eighth-grade students from Williams Middle School in Rockwall County had an experiment to test how microgravity effects yeast cell division and how those could relate to human cancer cells.

The The company said everyone at the site had been accounted for, and the damage appeared to be limited to the facilities. And nothing on the lost flight was urgently needed by the six people living on the 260-mile-high space station, officials said.    

Flames could be seen shooting into the sky as the sun set.

Orbital Sciences’ executive vice president Frank Culbertson said things began to go wrong 10 to 12 seconds into the flight and it was all over in 20 seconds when what was left of the rocket came crashing down. He said he believes the range-safety staff sent a destruct signal before it hit the ground.

Bill Wrobel, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, said crews were letting the fires burn out late Tuesday and set up a perimeter to contain them in the darkness. 

This was the second launch attempt for the mission. Monday evening’s try was thwarted by a stray sailboat in the rocket’s danger zone. The restrictions are in case of just such an accident that occurred Tuesday.

Culbertson said the top priority will be repairing the launch pad “as quickly and safely as possible.” 

He said he could not guess how long it will take to determine the cause of the accident and to make repairs. Culbertson said the company carried insurance on the mission, which he valued at more than $200 million, not counting repair costs.

He stressed that it was too soon to know whether the Russian-built engines, modified for the Antares and extensively tested, were to blame.

“We will understand what happened — hopefully soon — and we’ll get things back on track,” Culbertson assured his devastated team. “We’ve all seen this happen in our business before, and we’ve all seen the teams recover from this, and we will do the same.”

The Wallops facility is small compared to NASA’s major centers like those in Florida, Texas and California, but vaulted into the public spotlight in September 2013 with a NASA moonshot and the first Cygnus launch to the space station.

Michelle Murphy, an innkeeper at the Garden and Sea Inn, New Church, Virginia, where launches are visible across a bay about 16 miles away, witnessed the explosion.

“It was scary. Everything rattled,” she said. “There were two explosions. The first one we were ready for. The second one we weren’t. It shook the inn, like an earthquake.”

Culbertson advised people not to touch any potentially hazardous rocket or spacecraft debris that came down on their property or might wash ashore.

Immediately after the explosion, the launch team was ordered to maintain all computer data for the ensuing investigation. Culbertson advised his staff not to talk to news reporters and to refrain from speculating among themselves. 

“Definitely do not talk outside of our family,” said Culbertson, a former astronaut who once served on the space station.

This newest Cygnus cargo ship — named for the swan constellation — had held 5,000 pounds of space station experiments and equipment for NASA, as well as prepackaged meals and eagerly awaited crab cakes, freeze-dried for safe eating. It had been due to arrive at the orbiting lab Sunday.

By coincidence, the Russian Space Agency was proceeding with its own supply run on Wednesday, planned well before the U.S. mishap. And SpaceX is scheduled to launch another Dragon supply ship from Cape Canaveral in December; some items may be changed out to replace what was lost on the Cygnus.

NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters that the station and its crew have plenty of supplies on board — about five months’ worth — even without the upcoming launches.

Among the science instruments that were lost: a meteor tracker and 32 mini research satellites, along with numerous experiments compiled by schoolchildren. Suffredini promised the experimenters would get a chance to refly their work.

The two Americans, three Russians and one German aboard the space station were watching a live video feed from Mission Control and saw the whole thing unfold before their eyes. 

Until Tuesday, all of the supply missions by the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences and California-based SpaceX had been near-flawless. 

President Barack Obama has long championed this commercial space effort, well before NASA’s space shuttles were retired in 2011. He’s urged that NASA focus its human spaceflight effort less on nearby orbit and more on destinations like asteroids and Mars. He was informed of the accident while on a campaign trip in Wisconsin.

SpaceX’s billionaire founder and chief officer Elon Musk — whose company is the face, in many ways, of the commercial effort — said he was sorry to learn about the failure. “Hope they recover soon,” he said in a tweet.

Support poured in from elsewhere in the space community late Tuesday night.   

“Very sorry to see the Antares rocket launch failure,” said Chris Hadfield, a former Canadian astronaut who served as space station commander last year. “Spaceflight is hard. Very glad that no one was hurt.”

John Logdson, former space policy director at George Washington University, said it was unlikely to be a major setback to NASA’s commercial space plans. But he noted it could derail Orbital Sciences for a while given the company has just one launch pad and the accident occurred right above it.

The explosion hit Orbital Science’s stock, which fell more than 15 percent in after-hours trading.

The Antares rocket carrying Orbital Science's Cygnus CRS-3 automated space craft had a massive failure just as it lifting off at about 5:22 p.m. It was carrying about 5,050-pounds of supplies and experiments, NASA officials said.

There is no confirmation if anyone was injured after the unmanned rocket exploded just after launch. NASA officials reported that it appeared that there was heavy damage to the Wallops launch facility s well as the rocket and cargo capsule.

The Orb-3 mission was to be the fifth launch of the company’s Antares rocket in its first 18 months of operations and was to be the fourth cargo delivery mission to the space station by a Cygnus spacecraft.

This particular Cygnus was named the SS Deke Slayton, in honor of former NASA astronaut Donald “Deke” K. Slayton.

It was also the first launch of the Antares that had the larger, more powerful CASTOR 30XL second stage motor.

There were 18 student science experiments onboard the spacecraft as well. Two of those experiments were developed at Texas schools through the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

Fifth and sixth graders from Howsman Elementary and William P. Hobby Middle Schools in San Antonio had  crystal formation experiment aboard.

Also, eighth-grade students from Williams Middle School in Rockwall County had an experiment to test how microgravity effects yeast cell division and how those could relate to human cancer cells.

This is a developing story and will be updated as information becomes available.

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