Contractor's hodge-podge rocket was behind schedule, but appeared to be staging an unlikely comeback since 2013 -- until now

Many of us grew up hearing the phrase "it's not rocket science."  Many bright eyed future scientists and engineers heard those words and paused in wonder -- was rocket science really that hard?

It turns out the answer is yes.  Building heavy lifter rockets is indeed hard.  It is very hard.

I. Set Fire to the Rain

We were reminded of that fact today when a struggling member of America's nascent commercial spaceflight program, Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB) saw its Antares launch vehicle explode in spectacular fashion only six seconds after liftoff.  The towering rocket had barely made it aloft when it was engulfed in the explosion.  Seconds later the fuel tanks and other debris of the rocket's flame carcass are seen in the video slamming down into the ground, triggering a second explosion and massive fireball.

Here's a slightly longer version from the same official NASA feed:

The failed launch -- or "vehicle anomaly" as the rocketmaker took to terming it on Twitter -- commenced at roughly 6:22 p.m. Eastern Standard Time at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Wallops Flight Facility located south of Dover on the Delmarva peninsula in Virginia.  A NASA webpage brags that the facility, built in 1945, is "one of the oldest launch sites in the world".

Orbital Sciences admitted that the launch not only wiped out hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer funded cargo, but also put pressure on astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) who were relying on the Cygnus supply craft's primary mission -- bringing 1,300 lb (~590 kg) of food and other supplies to the ISS.  

Fortunately a second resupply mission using a Russian Soyuz rocket -- a trusty fallback for the Shuttle-less NASA -- was already planned for Wednesday from Kazakhstan.  And SpaceX -- NASA's other major private sector heavy lifting contractor -- is scheduled to perform its fifth cargo contract launch later this year.  That said, the stunning loss of the cargo ship does raise the risks for the six-person crew aboard the ISS who must now watch the following cargo missions with far more bated breath.

II. Damages to NASA Facility is "Significant", Luckily No One Was Killed

NASA spokesperson Jay Bolden confirmed that the fiery failure had done "significant" damage to the aging launch facility.  He commented:

There was failure on launch.  There was no indicated loss of life.  There was significant property and vehicle damage. Mission control is trying to assess what went wrong.

Orbital Sciences -- a company whos slogan "innovation you can count on" may ring ironic given today's happenings --released a brief statement of its own.  In its statement it confirms that their were no known human "casualties" of the crash.  It is unclear from that terminology whether there were any injuries involved.  The rocketmaker also tries desparately to find some small cause for optimism aboard the mess, mentioning that the damage to NASA's facilities was limited to only aprt of the facilities surrounding Launch Pad 0A.  The company's full statement follows:


Orbital Sciences Corporation confirms that today's Antares rocket launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility was not successful. Shortly after lift-off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A at 6:22 p.m. (EDT), the vehicle suffered a catastrophic failure. According to NASA’s emergency operations officials, there were no casualties and property damage was limited to the south end of Wallops Island. Orbital has formed an anomaly investigation board, which will work in close coordination with all appropriate government agencies, to determine the cause of today’s mishap.

"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."

Orbital will provide more information as it becomes available and is verified.

NASA sought to reassure the public in a followup statement posted online.  It quotes William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate as saying:

While NASA is disappointed that Orbital Sciences' third contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station was not successful today, we will continue to move forward toward the next attempt once we fully understand today's mishap. The crew of the International Space Station is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies.

Orbital has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first two missions to the station earlier this year, and we know they can replicate that success. Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback. Today's launch attempt will not deter us from our work to expand our already successful capability to launch cargo from American shores to the International Space Station

So how did things go so stunningly wrong for the cargo craft?  While it's too early to ascertain the exact mechanical cause of the doomed craft's failure, one can draw some fairly obvious conclusions by looking at Orbital Sciences' struggles to deliver the Antares craft and the hodge-podge design of the craft itself which straps together a separate solid fuel rocket (albeit a proven one) from defense contractor ATK and whose fuel tanks in the critical first stage were outsourced to Ukranian aerospace contractor Yuzhnoye SDO.


Sources: YouTube, Orbital, NASA

"We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk." -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs
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