Nasa vows to continue commercial rocket programme after explosion

The explosion is a setback for the approach to space cargo flights taken by the US since Nasa retired the space shuttle in 2011

This still image from Nasa video shows an Orbital Sciences Corporation unmanned spacecraft exploding six seconds after launch. Photo: AFP
This still image from Nasa video shows an Orbital Sciences Corporation unmanned spacecraft exploding six seconds after launch. Photo: AFP

Washington: The US vowed to continue its commercial space launch programme just hours after a rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded over a Virginia launch pad.

The unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp. rocket burst into an orange fireball on Tuesday above the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa) Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore. Orbital is leading an investigation into the cause of what Nasa described as a “catastrophic anomaly.”

The explosion, which caused no injuries, is a setback for the approach to space cargo flights taken by the US since Nasa retired the space shuttle in 2011. The agency now relies on Orbital and closely held SpaceX to ferry supplies to the space station, and the Russians to carry US astronauts there.

While “disappointed” that Orbital’s attempt at a third mission to resupply the shuttle failed, “we will continue to move forward toward the next attempt once we fully understand today’s mishap,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, a Nasa associate administrator, in a statement on Tuesday.

The explosion “will not deter us from our work to expand our already successful capability to launch cargo from American shores to the International Space Station.”

The failure of the Antares rocket won’t cause the space station crew to run out of food or other supplies, he said.

Shares fall

Shares of Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences declined as much as 19% in late trading after the explosion, which occurred at 6:22pm local time, before rebounding.

Orbital Sciences has a $1.9 billion contract with Nasa that commercializes routine cargo flights previously conducted by the agency.

“Orbital Sciences won’t attempt another launch until it determines the cause of the explosion,” said Frank Culbertson, an executive vice president for the company, at a news conference broadcast on Nasa’s website.

“President Barack Obama was briefed on the explosion and will continue to get updates as more information becomes available,” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman.

“The missile was destroyed by the launch team after an unspecified failure occurred within seconds of the launch,” Culbertson said. “The cause of the failure wasn’t immediately known and teams are only beginning to review telemetry data from the flight,” Culbertson said.

“I also would like to have those answers,” he said in response to a reporter’s question about what went wrong.

Reams of data

“The initial failure occurred about 10 to 12 seconds after the launch and the missile was destroyed within 20 seconds,” Culbertson said.

The company has “reams and reams” of telemetry data that was radioed from the rocket to the ground during the launch attempt and will be useful in determining what failed, he said.

US senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who flew on the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, said in an e-mailed statement that the “inherently risky” business of space travel shouldn’t deter the government’s program.

“As we push the frontiers of space there will be setbacks,” Nelson said. “But our commercial space ventures will ultimately be successful.”

The history of space launch attempts since the 1950s includes numerous failures of rockets, which are barely controlled explosions of oxygen-rich fuel.

Challenger explosion

The space shuttle Challenger exploded during launch in 1986, when a leak developed on one of its rockets. Columbia was destroyed during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. In that case, tiles designed to protect the craft from the heat of reentry were damaged during its earlier launch. The accidents killed 14 crew members.

“The space station crew orbiting the Earth has enough supplies to last into next year,” Michael Suffredini, Nasa’s manager of the station, said at the briefing. “Other rockets are also available to deliver supplies to the station in coming weeks,” Suffredini said.

“We’re in good shape,” he said.

Former Nasa astronaut Mark Kelly said in an interview on CNN that the rocket was packed with fuel needed to get the payload to the space station.

“It takes a lot of propellant to take a spacecraft of that size moving 25 times the speed of sound,” Kelly said. “When it fails, it’s usually pretty catastrophic.”

The mission was the fifth attempted launch of the Antares rocket and its third to pair the rocket with Orbital’s Cygnus cargo logistics spacecraft. The capsule carried 2,290 kilograms of supplies for the station and was named for the late Donald “Deke” Slayton, an original Mercury astronaut, Orbital Sciences said on its website.

The privately developed Antares is a medium-class launch vehicle that can power spacecraft weighing up to 14,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit, the company said. Bloomberg

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