[Update: This article has been updated to include information from a NASA briefing Tuesday night.]
Orbital Science Corporation, supported by NASA, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, and the Federal Aviation Administration, has opened an investigation of the loss of the company's Antares rocket, which malfunctioned just seconds after lift-off Tuesday evening from its launch site on Virginia's Wallops Island.
The rocket's two first-stage motors had reached 108 percent of their typical thrust, as planned, when video showed additional flames erupted from the bottom of the first stage. The rocket slowed, then fell, exploding as it hit the ground.
The craft was carrying 5,000 pounds of science experiments, hardware, and crew supplies destined for the International Space Station. Had the launch gone as planned, the company's Cygnus cargo capsule would have docked with the station on Sunday.
No injuries or fatalities resulted from the explosion. Officials said the launch pad suffered damage, but at this point, it's unclear how extensive. A close inspection of the pad and of the debris field will begin at sun-up, according to Frank Culbertson, executive vice-president and general manager of the advanced projects group at Orbital Sciences.
Orbital Sciences is one of two companies NASA has hired to carry cargo to the space station. This was to have been the company's third cargo mission under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA. Its previous two cargo missions were successful.
The loss leaves Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), based in Hawthorne, Calif., as the only company capable of supplying the station from the United States. It has a $1.6-billion cargo contract with the space agency and is one of two companies NASA is supporting to develop the capability to carry US astronauts to and from the station. So far, the company has conducted four successful resupply missions, in addition to two prior demonstration missions.
The loss would appear to validate NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's argument for selecting two private companies rather than one or a single NASA-owned launch vehicle for space transportation to low-Earth orbit, as some in Congress had argued. He told lawmakers that he didn't want US crew transportation to come to a halt if an accident occurred – an event that would ground flights using the same hardware during the inevitable accident investigation and the implementation of the investigation's recommendations.
But the loss of rocket and cargo – after what officials described as a flawless countdown with no signs of problems with the rocket's systems – also could rekindle smoldering debates over the use of commercial carriers for lofting astronauts, even though Orbital Sciences was not in the running for that business.
At the least, the incident highlights the oft-heard mantra that getting into space is anything but routine.
“This just reminds us how difficult this business is, how careful we have to be, how small things really matter in this launch business, and we just have to watch that as we go forward,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, during a briefing Tuesday night following the incident.
“We need to get this done just as professionally as we execute our countdowns,” said Mr. Culbertson as the ground team worked to gather and secure information pertaining to the launch so it would be available to investigators. “This is a part of our job also. Thanks for all the hard work getting to this point. We will understand what happened, hopefully soon, and we'll get things back on track.”
Among the items needing securing: Classified cryptographic equipment aboard the Cygnus capsule.
The loss of the rocket and capsule occurred within the first 20 seconds of launch, Culbertson said during the briefing. The malfunction was serious enough to prompt the range-safety officer to send a destruct command to the rocket. A more detailed timeline awaits a thorough analysis of video images and telemetry the rocket sent back conveying the status of the craft's various systems.
In addition, the debris will be tagged, collected, and used to help reconstruct events.
The Antares rocket uses two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 motors at the business end of its first stage. The Russian-designed motors burn kerosene, with liquid oxygen serving as the oxidizer. Aerojet Rocketdyne modernized the motors' gimballing mechanisms, which in effect steer the rocket, as well as related hardware and instruments. It's second stage uses a solid-fuel motor
The crew aboard the International Space Station watched the launch attempt via a video feed.
“They were disappointed, but they know that the team is going to work through the anomaly and get back to flight soon,” said Michael Suffredini, NASA's space-station program manager.
He noted that the station has enough food, water, and other “consumables” to last through March 2015. But Orbital Science's Cygnus capsule carried a tank of pressurized nitrogen needed for the station's airlock system. ISS managers may have to juggle cargo manifests a bit to see that a similar tank is delivered in December, when SpaceX is scheduled for its next station-resupply trip.