The Cygnus spacecraft, carried on an Orbital Sciences Antares 130 rocket launched at 3:22 p.m., Pacific, from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The mission was to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. For reasons yet unknown, the rocket exploded six seconds after takeoff. Thankfully, the craft was unmanned at the time.
“There was no indicated loss of life,” said NASA spokesman Jay Bolden.
The Cygnus program started as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Program (COTS) and enters the Commercial Resupply Services Program once completing its first demonstration flight. Today’s mission was the first flight of the upgraded Antares 130 rocket (the fifth total flight for the Antares), which was designed to accommodate larger payloads. This was the second attempt to make this launch. The first was scrubbed yesterday, after a boat which was in the ocean inside of the “Range Safe Area” failed to depart in time. The mission, designated CS-3 was to have been the third mission delivering supplies to the ISS.
NASA and Orbital Sciences are in process of scheduling a press conference. We will be updating this story as more information becomes available.
Update #1: 4:24 p.m. (Pacific), 10/28, 2014
NASA Tweets: Before launch @OrbitalSciences team wasn’t tracking any issues. No injuries have been reported & all personnel around launch site accounted.
Update #2: 5:03 p.m. (Pacific), 10/28/2014
Orbital Sciences has released a press statement.
“It is far too early to know the details of what happened,” said Mr. Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s Executive Vice President and General Manager of its Advanced Programs Group. “As we begin to gather information, our primary concern lies with the ongoing safety and security of those involved in our response and recovery operations. We will conduct a thorough investigation immediately to determine the cause of this failure and what steps can be taken to avoid a repeat of this incident. As soon as we understand the cause we will begin the necessary work to return to flight to support our customers and the nation’s space program.”
Update #3: 5:30 p.m. (Pacific), 10/28/2014
NASA & Orbital Sciences Press Conference
Obviously, there are a lot more questions than answers at this point, but representatives from both NASA and Orbital Sciences spent nearly an hour delivering as many answers as they could. Bill Wrobel, Director of NASA Wallops Flight Facility explained the immediate situation on Wallops Island, “We worked hard to make sure that the areas were clear before, during, and after the launch. We have no reports of any injuries. Our preliminary reports show that the damage was limited to the south end of Wallops Island. There is a fair amount of [debris] scatter, and it will float to other areas … We planned for the possibility of a failed launch attempt … it happens from time to time … Our job first and foremost is to protect public safety. If people do find any debris or anything that might be suspect, please call our incident response team at 757-824-1295. Please do not touch any debris you think may have come from the rocket or spacecraft. [They are potentially hazardous materials] Thank you for working with us as we work to pick up the remains from this scene.”
He added, “Fire crews have gotten into the area, we’ve set up a permimeter. We’ve got some solid fuel out there, which is burning, but it is contained.”
Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator of Human Exploration and Operations explained, “Orbital will lead the investigation into this anomaly, along with FAA and NASA … In terms of the Space Station, we’re in good shape in terms of consumables. There was nothing critical aboard Cygnus from that consumables standpoint.”
Frank Culbertson, executive vice president of Orbital Sciences said, “This is a tough evening to be talking about our mission. On Behalf of Dave Thompson and the entire Orbital team, we want to express our disappointment that we were not able to complete our mission for the Space Station. We’re very happy to report that there were no injuries … and all we lost was hardware. That said, we’re very sorry to have lost the cargo, it was very valuable, and teams worked very hard to prepare it.” Culbertson repeated Wrobel’s caution against picking up any debris from the area, “I do want to caution the public, this is an accident site, and this was a rocket. There are hazardous materials, and people should not be looking to collect souvenirs. If you find a piece that came down at the shore or on your farm, don’t touch it.”
As for the investigation, Culbertson explained, “We’ve got a team that’s going to start first thing in the morning, in daylight, to determine where the problem started … We will determine corrective action. We take our jobs very seriously … it’s a high risk business and sometimes things don’t go as planned. We WILL be back here at Wallops, flying again as soon as it’s safe to do so. We will deliver cargo to the ISS in future … We need a few weeks to see what damage has been done, make some plans, and get to work.”
The one point on which all of the representatives were most reassuring is that the crew aboard the International Space Station is in no danger as a result of this incident. Mike Suffredini, manager of NASA’s Space Station Program Office told reporters, “We are very disappointed with the events of this evening. Cygnus is an important part of the support plan for ISS … We keep logistics on board the ISS that will last four to six months, just in case a logistics vehicle can’t make it. The current supplies on board the ISS will last into next year … Tomorrow morning, Progress will launch and on December 9, Space-X Dragon will launch, they’ll probably re-adjust their manifest a bit to help compensate for what was lost today. We did lose quite a bit of research hardware on board. In addition to that, we lost some spares that we’ll have to replace over time, but the space station and crew are in good shape.”
Culbertson added that the Cygnus mission had been carrying a nitrogen re-supply tank for the ISS crew. Dragon’s December mission was slated to carry an oxygen tank, so they may swap out that cargo.
The ISS crew was watching the launch on a live feed. Asked what the crew’s reaction was, Suffredini replied, “They were disappointed and they know that the team will work through the anomaly and get back on track. They know they have plenty of supplies. They were disappointed, but as true professionals, they’re carrying on with their tasks until the next transport can arrive.”
The rest of the information discussed was speculative at best. Until the fires are out, HazMat can clear the launch pad area, and the investigation team can get out there, we won’t have many more firm answers. As always, Krypton Radio will stay on top of further developments and let you know when there’s more to learn!