On Oct. 28 at 6:22 p.m. EDT, an unmanned Antares cargo rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corporation exploded just after liftoff.
After it left Launchpad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the coast of Virginia, there was an explosion on board. “The ascent stopped,” Frank L. Culbertson Jr., the executive vice president of Orbital Sciences Corporation said during a news conference Tuesday evening. “There was some disassembly of the first stage, it looked like, and then it fell to earth.”
No one was killed or injured in the explosion. The cost of the lost rocket is estimated at $200 million, and the stock of Orbital Sciences Corporation fell 16.79 percent on Wednesday.
The rocket was carrying 727 kilograms of science experiments, 637 kilograms of vehicle hardware, 617 kilograms of food, 131 kilograms of crew equipment and flight procedure books, 66 kilograms of spacewalk equipment, and 37 kilograms of computer equipment meant for the International Space Station. A satellite was also on board.
This was the fifth Antares rocket to be launched by Orbital Sciences Corporation since its maiden flight in April 2013, and the third to carry a payload intended for the International Space Station. Orbital Sciences Corporation is under contract to deliver five more payloads, but the company is grounding its rockets until the problem that caused Tuesday’s catastrophic failure can be identified and solved.
NASA officials said the failure would not cause immediate issues for the International Space Station, which currently has enough supplies to last several months. Russia sent a cargo ship to the station on Oct. 29 and SpaceX, another private space rocket company, is scheduled to deliver cargo in December.
“We have plenty of capability to support the crew on board,” said Michael T. Suffredini, the manager of the space station program.
The Wallops Incident Response Team completed an initial assessment of the launch area on Wednesday. The team found damage to the transporter erector launcher and lightning suppression rods at Launchpad 0A, as well as debris around the pad. A number of buildings in the immediate area have broken windows and imploded doors caused by the explosion.
The Wallops environmental team is also assessing the damage. No hazardous substances were found at the nearby locations of the Wallops mainland area, the Highway 175 causeway, and on Chincoteague Island.
“I want to praise the launch team, range safety, all of our emergency responders and those who provided mutual aid and support on a highly-professional response that ensured the safety of our most important resource — our people,” said Bill Wrobel, Wallops director. “In the coming days and weeks ahead, we’ll continue to assess the damage on the island and begin the process of moving forward to restore our space launch capabilities. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will rebound stronger than ever.”
Initial inquiries into the cause of the explosion have focused on the spacecraft’s engines, which are refurbished NK-33 engines dating back to Soviet efforts to send a manned mission to the Moon between 1969 and 1972.