TMC Eyewitness Account: Orbital Rocket Blows Up on Launch

By Doug Mohney October 29, 2014

Orbital Sciences Corporation lost its third commercial supply mission, Orb-3, to the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday, Oct. 28, around 6:23 p.m. (EDT) due to an flight anomaly in the first stage. Cause of the failure is unknown and it will likely take NASA and Orbital Sciences months to arrive at conclusions and the root cause or causes. Regardless, both the Wallops Island, VA, launch site and Orbital suffered a significant setback Tuesday evening.

The two stage Antares launch vehicle lifted off “majestically,” in the words of Orbital executives -- slowly, for mere mortals -- building up thrust from two Aerojet AJ-26 engines fueled by a mixture of RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen. The flight started normally for the first handful of seconds, but appeared to waver and fall at around 10 to 12 seconds into flight, as witnessed by press observers such as myself.

Initial explosion. TechZone360 photo by Doug Mohney

At a 9:15 p.m. press conference, Orbital Sciences Executive Vice President Frank Culbertson said both visual indications and telemetry from the Antares indicated a problem with the first stage, which subsequently “disassembled” – a diplomatic term for blew up. Heat from the first stage “disassembly” could be felt a couple miles away at the press viewing area. 

Range Safety terminated the flight at around 20 seconds from liftoff, estimates Culbertson, resulting in a second, louder explosion as the second stage was essentially blown into small pieces by design using explosive charges.

Secondary explosion. TechZone360 photo by Doug Mohney

The press were immediately ordered onto a bus and taken quickly away from the area. As we departed, flames from the wreckage covered a large portion of Wallops Island around Pad 0A.

A NASA Wallops official said the damage appeared to be contained to the southern part of Wallops Island, where the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) pad is, and not affecting Orbital’s vehicle assembly buildings and a Navy training facility on the northern end of the island. The entire island is “locked down” at this time as the fires burn out, with officials planning to send out a team Wednesday when there is more light to survey, see hazards, identify and ultimately collect wreckage.

Officials from both Orbital and NASA were emphatic that local residents should not attempt to touch or handle wreckage, as it may contain hazardous materials, such as solid rocket fuel or hydrazine. They cited the potential for wreckage to fall “on a beach, in someone’s yard” and if found to call NASA officials to come pick up the pieces.

Given the shocking and unexpected nature of the evening’s launch, NASA and Orbital are being very cautious and tight-lipped at this time. Orbital will be in charge of the investigation with assistance from NASA, the FAA, and the state of Virginia.

One potential “root cause” given the obvious failure of the first stage might be the Aerojet AJ-26 rocket engine, a heavily refurbished Soviet/Russian NK-33 engine. Two AJ-26 engines have blown up during testing since 2011, with the second failure occurring this year. Orbital scrutinized its existing stock of AJ-26’s after this year’s failure, with Aerojet attributing a significant loss to the test failure and efforts to correct the issue.

Culbertson said it would be “several weeks” before they would have an idea of the damage to the pad and support facilities and what it would take to repair it. He put the cost at the Orb-3 mission at “over $200 million,” not including the loss of research materials, replacement equipment and other cargo.  He would not be drawn into a discussion as to how long it would take for Orbital to resume operations of Antares, but emphasized the company would fly again from Wallops in the future, 

The Cygnus SS Deke Slayton had almost 2300 kilograms of cargo on board. A NASA official cited the loss of a 6,000 psi nitrogen tank on the fight and suggested a replacement may go up on a future SpaceX supply mission. Other losses include 32 CubeSats, including Planetary Resource’s first on-orbit testbed for its Arkyd space telescope family, and a set of 18 STEM experiments put together by high school and college students.

It is likely the twin explosions from the failed launched damaged the pad and its immediate support equipment, including the Antares TEL (transporter, erector, launcher) that horizontally brings the rocket to the pad, then moves to the vertical position and holds it in place for launch. Wallops officials said they still have pressure readings coming from some pipes and tanks near the pad.

Loss of the Orbital Orb-3 mission will not have an immediate impact on International Space Station operations. The facility keeps anywhere from four to six months of supplies on board and has a steady and diverse set of cargo vehicles to keep food, experiments, and consumables flowing. A Russian Progress freighter is scheduled to go up on October 29 followed by a SpaceX Dragon vehicle.

The mission was to be the third launched this year and the fourth time Orbital has sent a spacecraft to rendezvous with ISS. Originally scheduled for launch on October 27 at 6:45 p.m., the first attempt was scrubbed due to a wayward sailboat in the middle of the downrange safety zone – a precaution that seems quite reasonable with this evening’s events.

Orb-3 was to the third of eight commercial fights Orbital has conducted for NASA under a $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) awarded in 2008. Under the contract, Orbital is expected to deliver up to 20 metric tons of cargo to ISS through 2016. Orbital has some insurance, but It wasn’t made clear as to if or how much NASA would pay in case of a launch failure or how much Orbital might have to spend to “make good” on the loss of a CRS mission. Orbital stock is likely to take a beating when the markets open.

Edited by Rory J. Thompson

Contributing Editor

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