Antares Rocket Headed To Space Station Explodes Seconds After Liftoff

A disappointing setback.

APTOPIX Space Station

An Orbital Sciences Antares rocket carrying some 5,000 pounds of cargo for the International Space Station exploded seconds after liftoff from a NASA launch facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in a spectacular explosion reminiscent of the failures of the early days of the space program:

An unmanned cargo rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded seconds after liftoff Tuesday night.

The Antares rocket, carrying 5,055 pounds of supplies, science experiments and equipment, lifted off on schedule at 6:22 p.m. from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia.

But soon after it rose into the sky, there was a flash of an explosion. “The ascent stopped,” Frank L. Culbertson Jr., the executive vice president of Orbital Sciences Corporation, the maker of the rocket, said during a news conference Tuesday. “There was some disassembly of the first stage, it looked like, and then it fell to earth.”

No one was injured

Orbital, based in Dulles, Va., first launched a 14-story-high Antares rocket on its maiden flight in April last year. It then conducted a demonstration flight to the space station to show NASA the capabilities of the rocket and the cargo spacecraft. Then came two more flights carrying cargo to the space station, part of a program in which NASA has hired private companies to ferry cargo to the space station. Tuesday’s launch would have been the third of eight cargo missions under a $1.9 billion contract.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., of Hawthorne, Calif., known as SpaceX, has successfully flown four cargo missions to the space station, the most recent mission ending on Saturday.

NASA officials said the failure would not cause immediate issues for the space station, which had adequate supplies to last at least until next spring. SpaceX’s next cargo mission is scheduled for December and Russia on Wednesday successfully launched its own resupply cargo ship from the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan.

“We have plenty of capability to support the crew on board,” said Michael T. Suffredini, the manager of the space station program.

The launch of this rocket, which was originally scheduled for early Monday evening but scrubbed because the discovery of a boat within the launch safety range delayed the launch past the scheduled time window, was supposed to have been visible to the naked eye as it ascended to much of the East Coast from Massachusetts all the way down to the northern tip of South Carolina. Northern Virginia was well within that window, and indeed within the area where visibility would have been best, but since I was in an area where there isn’t really a clear line of sight to the east, I was watching the NASA live feed over the Internet. I’m obviously no rocket engineer, but the launch itself looked like it had gone off just fine, but seconds after the rocket cleared the tower it appeared to list just a bit to the left and then explode in a massive ball of fire that was made even more striking by the dark skies of early evening. The picture above looks to have been taken seconds after that when the rocket and its debris descended back down onto the launch pad, which appears to have sustained some serious damage and is likely out of commission for some time to come. In that respect, fortunately, there are still the launch facilities at Cape Kennedy, which is where another supply mission to the ISS aboard a Space X rocket is currently scheduled to launch in Florida. Additionally, there was another scheduled launch of a Soyuz rocket headed to the ISS from the Russian launch facility in Kazakhstan this morning, but it seems unlikely that there would have been sufficient time to stock it with anything replacing the supply material that was lost last night.

Here’s the video of what was running on the live feed, starting about two and a half minutes before launch, and ending just after the explosion:

And here’s one from Hampton Roads television station WVEC taken by its traffic plane, which was flying well outside of the launch zone, but still close enough to catch the launch and explosion on its cameras:

The Washington Post also has a collection of amateur video taken by people who were at the Wallops Island viewing area, or across the bay on Assateague Island.

It will take some time for the cause of yesterday’s failure to be determined, of course, but initial speculation from people with knowledge of the subject suggested that the most probable explanation centered on some sort of massive engine or guidance failure. In that regard, its worth noting that Antares utilizes refurbished engines from a seemingly unlikely source:

The tale of the engine that propelled the Antares rocket, which exploded in a spectacular ball of flame in Virginia Tuesday night, begins four decades ago, thousands of miles away, in a land of communism and Sputnik. There, in the Soviet Union, rocket scientists conceived and built dozens of rocket engines that were meant to power Russian astronauts into the cosmos. But it didn’t work out that way.

Instead all four launches of the mighty N1 Soviet rocket, which used an earlier iteration of the engine used in Thursday’s launch, failed between 1969 and 1972. And as the Soviet Union abandoned the idea of putting cosmonauts on the moon, those engines languished in Russia “without a purpose,” reported Space Lift Now.

That was until they were snapped up by Dulles-based Orbital Sciences, which built the rocket that exploded. It now uses refurbished versions of those Russian engines to propel missions to the International Space Station. To be clear, investigators say they do not know what caused Tuesday’s explosion, which destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment. But some observers are now questioning those Soviet-era engines.

On Tuesday night, an Orbital executive complained there aren’t more modern alternative to the decades-old engines, the Guardian reported. “When you look at it there are not many other options around the world in terms of using power plants of this size,” said Frank Culbertson, the company executive vice-president. “Certainly not in this country, unfortunately.” The first issues with the rocket appeared to arise, he said, during the rocket’s first stage, when it was powered by Soviet engines. ”The assent stopped [and] there was some, let’s say, disassembly of the first stage, after which it fell to earth,” he said.

Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the explosion is likely to stall the ambitions of Orbital Sciences, which has a $1.9 billion contract to make eight supply missions to the international space station. It shed $266 million in market value Tuesday night. What’s more, this is not Orbital’s only recent engine-related explosion.

In May, one of its refurbished Soviet engines failed at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. “Sources claim the engine ‘exploded,'” reportedNASA Space Flight. “The failure is currently under evaluation.”

The main competitor to Orbital Sciences for the contracts to ferry supplies, and eventually passengers to the International Space Station, is likely to benefit from this setback as well, and has long been critical of Orbital’s decision to use a rocket design that failed where Saturn V’s engines succeeded spectacularly:

Elon Musk, the CEO of Orbital’s competitor SpaceX, has long warned against using such decades-old technology. Calling it one of the “pretty silly things going on in the market,” he told Wired last year that some aerospace firms rely on parts “developed in the 1960s” rather than “better technology.” He called out Orbital Sciences in particular. It “has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke,” he said. “It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s — I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.”

That synopsis isn’t that far from the truth. After the N1 rocket failed in the early 1970s, the Soviet Union pulled back on its space ambitions, and its engines went into hibernation, Space Flight Now reported. “After the engines were built, Soviet space dreams were adjusted to focus on Earth-orbiting space stations, leaving the engineering marvels in storage without a purpose.”

They were eventually brought to the United States in the 1990s for a California-based company looking to supply engines for the Atlas 5 rocket, but another engine was ultimately chosen, the news agency said. And the “NK-33 appeared to be left in the dust for a second time until Orbital Sciences came along.”

WVEC is also reporting that engine problems were the reason for a delay of the launch of another Antares rocket scheduled for the summer:

WALLOPS ISLAND – Problems with the engine that was used to power the Antares 130 rocket, which exploded during an attempted launch on Tuesday, delayed a previous launch scheduled for June.

The Antares 130 rocket was being used for the first time in Tuesday’s launch. The new rocket included bigger engines and added fuel capacity designed to give the rocket a larger payload.

The Antares rocket is designed and produced by Orbital Sciences Corporation, which has a contract with NASA to conduct eight re-supply missions for the International Space Station. Tuesday’s launch was to be the third such mission.

A failed test of the engine used on the Antares rocket, the AJ26, delayed the second re-supply mission scheduled for earlier this summer.

According to NASA, the engine failure happened in late may during a test at the Stennis Space Center. The engine that failed was not scheduled to be used until a 2015 mission but the failure prompted Orbital Sciences Corporation to delay all flights until it could conduct further testing.

Tuesday’s launch was the fifth total launch for Orbital Sciences Corporation but the first with the larger Antares 130 rocket, which NASA says was developed specifically to launch the Cygnus spacecraft.

This incident reminds us, of course, that space travel remains a risky and sometimes dangerous undertaking. Fortunately, there was no loss of life, but we’ve seen that happen plenty of times with Apollo I, Challenger, and Columbia, not to mention near disasters such as Apollo 13 and losses based on seemingly dumb mistakes like the failure to properly convert measurements from English to Metric that caused the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter. What caused last night’s events, whether it was the refurbished Soviet era engines or something different, will likely be uncovered at some point and Orbital will either make the proper adjustments and get back on track, or it will be surpassed by the competing designs from SpaceX and Boeing. So, yesterday’s loss was disappointing, but it was ultimately just a stumble on a continuing journey.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    Houston, we have a problem.

  2. Guarneri says:

    October surprise.

  3. Mikey says:

    I’m just glad we didn’t lose any people. Or Kerbals.

  4. Jack says:

    Clearly, this is Bush’s fault…oh, wait…

    http://www.space.com/14544-president-obama-nasa-budget-2013.html

  5. @Jack:

    This isn’t about NASA Antares is a private venture much like Space X.

  6. stonetools says:

    What caused last night’s events, whether it was the refurbished Soviet era engines or something different, will likely be uncovered at some point and Orbital will either make the proper adjustments and get back on track, or it will be surpassed by the competing designs from SpaceX and Boeing. So, yesterday’s loss was disappointing, but it was ultimately just a stumble on a continuing journey.

    So after a bad launch results in an exploding rocket, Doug terms this “a disappointing setback”, urges us to keep working , make adjustments, and to press on to the goal of accomplishing a difficult, complex task-spaceflight.

    After a bad launch of the ACA web site, Doug proclaims disaster, repeatedly predicts future failure, ignores evidence that the Administration made successful adjustments, and passes over in silence the Adminstration’s progress towards the goal of accomplishing a difficult, complex task-universal health insurance.

    Interesting how looking at the world through different ideological goggles changes analysis of particular issues, doesn’t it?

    (BTW, I support both the goals of achieving spaceflight and universal health insurance and consider both as “promoting the general welfare”-Big Gumint at its best).

  7. stonetools,

    The rollout of the website was a disaster, it did cause problems, it forced the Administration to shut the thing down for a month and a half to fix it, and it took them weeks to even admit that anything was wrong. But, okay, whatever.

    And, in accordance with the comment policies, let’s do try to stay on topic.

  8. Jack says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The Antares rocket is designed and produced by Orbital Sciences Corporation, which has a contract with NASA to conduct eight re-supply missions for the International Space Station. Tuesday’s launch was to be the third such mission.

    That’s what happens when you go with the lowest bidder.

  9. C. Clavin says:

    @Jack:
    You realize that Orbital Sciences Corporation is a private sector program, right?
    Yeah…I didn’t think so.
    You never did tell us what brand diapers you wear, bed-wetter.

  10. Jack says:

    @stonetools:

    “promoting the general welfare”-

    Promote does not mean tax those that can afford it to pay for those that cannot.

    pro·mote

    /prəˈmōt/

    verb – further the progress of (something, especially a cause, venture, or aim); support or actively encourage.

    “some regulation is still required to promote competition”

    synonyms: encourage, advocate, further, advance, assist, aid, help, contribute to, foster, nurture, develop, boost, stimulate, forward, work for “an organization promoting justice”

  11. Jack says:

    @C. Clavin: Keep soiling your tighty whiteys, skidmark.

  12. Mikey says:

    @Jack: When John Glenn was about to ascend in the Mercury capsule to his historic orbital flight, fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter is reputed to have told him, “Remember, John…this was built by the low bidder.”

  13. stonetools says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Ah, but I am on topic. I’m pointing out that the Administration pursued exactly the same approach with the ACA that you want it to pursue with NASA’s goal of solving the problem of creating a reliable space transportation system-it figured out what went wrong and fixed the problem, instead of abandoning the goal and scrapping the program.
    Note the difference in characterization-

    The rollout of the website was a disaster

    versus

    So, yesterday’s loss was disappointing

    So why wasn’t a rocket exploding on launch a “disaster?”Why wasn’t the ACA rollout a “setback”, since “fixed?”
    Well, at least, after a year, you admit it has been fixed. So you are only eight times as slow to admit the truth as the Administration. But like you say, whatevs. Let’s return to ignoring your very different treatment of two government programs, one of which you favor and one of which you do not.

  14. C. Clavin says:

    @Jack:

    That’s what happens when you go with the lowest bidder.

    Orbital Sciences is contracted for eight cargo missions with Cygnus and Antares under a $1.9 billion agreement with NASA.
    SpaceX is contracted to fly 12 missions to the space station using Dragon and the Falcon 9 under a $1.6 billion contract with NASA.
    Basic math: 1.9B/8 > 1.6B/9.
    Apparently, if it’s anything more complicated than typing “skidmark”, you don’t have a fvcking clue.
    Have you ever looked up the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

  15. Jack says:

    @C. Clavin: Keep on crapping your pants, skidmark.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @C. Clavin: @Jack: Please, Grow. up.

  17. C. Clavin says:

    @Jack:
    Every comment you have typed is factually incorrect…and skid-mark is either two separate words, or hyphenated.
    Your mother must be so proud.

  18. stonetools says:

    @Jack:

    Promote does not mean tax those that can afford it to pay for those that cannot

    Er, NASA is a government agency, funded with our tax dollars, tasked with the following mission:

    NASA’s vision: To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.

    To do that, thousands of people have been working around the world — and off of it — for more than 50 years, trying to answer some basic questions. What’s out there in space? How do we get there? What will we find? What can we learn there, or learn just by trying to get there, that will make life better here on Earth?

    Now, that’s a great mission and I wholeheartedly support it. But note that (a) it is funded by taxing people who can afford to pay federal income tax (b) it’s aimed at benefitting not only non-tax paying Americans, but “all humankind.”
    Oddly enough, you don’t find “constitutionalists” and libertarians objecting to a mission that fits the “general welfare” requirement only in the broadest sense and which is certainly not “enumerated” in the Constitution.

    Now let me be clear: I join Doug and others in urging that NASA continue to support both contractors as they try to achieve the very difficult goal of developing a reliable launch vehicle to aid NASA in its continuing mission. I only wish that that similar encouragement would be extended to another government agency (HHS) as it seeks to achieve another worthy mission: providing access to health care for millions of uninsured Americans.

  19. Gavrilo says:

    @stonetools:

    Yes, let’s compare the failure to launch a 14-story high rocket carrying 5,000 lbs of supplies and equipment with the failure to build a website!

    Oh, and by the way, the failed website cost about 3 times more than the failed rocket launch.

  20. grumpy realist says:

    I’m not so certain that old technology is by itself, the problem. The Soviets used 1945 technology for the Buran booster, which meant they could ship the rocket in parts out to the launch site, assemble it on its side, and then take this huge clamp and rotate the thing until it was upright. You can’t do something similar with an Atlas-Centaur, which has such thin walls it would crumble under its own weight with empty fuel tanks.

    Sometimes big and beefy is what you want. And I feel MUCH happier flying a Cessna with the standard six-pack rather one of the more “upgrade” versions with electronic screens. Much less to go wrong.

    I think in this case it’s the engines itself. The USSR was known for inadvertently blowing their rockets up, sometimes with people inside. Then they’d scrub the dead astronauts from the official photographs and pretend they had never existed. If you’re a company that wants to get cheap parts from Russia, buy the stuff for the materials.

  21. stonetools says:

    @Gavrilo:

    It was building a website to accomplish a complex goal-being the interface between tens of millions of consumers in 36 states and the health insurance industry- that had never been attempted before.
    Launching a rocket into space, OTOH, is a task that has been accomplished many times since 1957.

    Both are major, complex tasks. You’re an idiot if you don’t recognise this to be the case. One of them,though, had never been done before.

  22. C. Clavin says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Sometimes big and beefy is what you want.

    Amen to that.

  23. Gavrilo says:

    @stonetools:

    Right. Because no one ever built a website before.

  24. grumpy realist says:

    Totally, OT, but Doug–have you seen this?

    To which my only response is: WHAAAAT?! This is so mind-boggingly stupid I can’t even count the layers of fail.

  25. anjin-san says:

    @Jack:

    Obama is proposing a budget that he might be able to get through anti-science Republicans in Congress. They have made it clear NASA’s budget is going to be cut, the only question is how much. Do you understand how the federal budget works?

    A NASA authorization bill drafted by the Republican majority of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology proposes to slash NASA’s funding to $16.6 billion for 2014 — $300 million less than it received in 2013, and $1.1 billion less than President Obama requested for NASA in 2014. The bill — which authorizes spending levels but provides no actual funding — would roll back NASA’s funding to a level $1.2 billion less than its 2012 budget.

    http://www.space.com/22023-nasa-authorization-bill-debate.html

  26. Nikki says:

    @Gavrilo: No one has ever built an unmanned rocket heading to the ISS before?

  27. Tyrell says:

    NASA is warning people to stay away from any parts that they might see, that they could be “hazardous”. We all know the real reason.
    I would bet that if any one did find anything and tampered with it, or took it, they would wind up in custody, kept in some secret complex.

  28. ernieyeball says:

    @Tyrell: We all know the real reason.

    I don’t have a clue Ty and I can’t wait to hear you tell us all what it is.

  29. Mikey says:

    @ernieyeball: Alien testicles.

  30. Tyrell says:

    @ernieyeball: Think about it: they do not want people to have knowledge of advanced materials and propulsion systems that are being tested. Technology that would revolutionize space travel.

  31. ernieyeball says:

    @Tyrell:..advanced materials and propulsion systems that are being tested.

    One of the reasons given for the failure is that the rocket engines on this missile were refurbished surplus Soviet rockets built in the 1960’s. Advanced technology it is not. Where do you come up with this piffle?

  32. Hal_10000 says:

    @anjin-san:

    That was FY 2014. For FY2015, it’s reversed. The Republican budget is much better, especially on science, than the President’s.