On early Tuesday evening, an unmanned rocket exploded in midair, creating massive flames and loud booms across the eastern Virginia coast. No injuries or deaths were reported.
Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft had been set to launch at 6:22 p.m. ET from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, exploding about six seconds after launch. The carrier contained an estimated 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments, along with a satellite owned by Planetary Resources, Inc., that were designated to arrive at the International Space Station.
The launch was initially scheduled for Monday but was delayed after a sailboat ventured into the launch site’s hazard zone, an area of about 1,400 square miles off Wallops Island.
“Tonight’s events really show the difficulty that it takes for us to do this task of delivering cargo to the space station,” NASA Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said on Tuesday.
The cause of the accident wasn’t immediately known, NASA mission commentator Dan Huot told Reuters.
Altogether, the rocket and spacecraft cost more than $200 million. And according to Frank Culbertson, the general manager of Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group, both were damaged beyond impair. The launchpad was also harmed as debris from the explosion plummeted back to Earth producing even more flames.
“All we lost was hardware,” Culbertson said. “That hardware, however, is very important.”
Mark Kelly, a former NASA astronaut, told CNN that a massive fire was to be expected.
“It takes a lot of propellant to take a spacecraft of that size moving 25 times the speed of sound,” Kelly said, explaining how fast the rocket should have moved on its way to the International Space Station. “So when it fails, it’s usually pretty catastrophic.”
So what did happen?
“What we know so far is pretty much what everybody saw on the video,” Culbertson said. “The ascent stopped, there was some, let’s say disassembly, of the first stage, and then it fell to Earth. … We don’t really have any early indications of exactly what might have failed, and we need some time to look at that.”
Orbital and the Federal Aviation Administration will lead the upcoming investigation, along with NASA’s aid. Any debris that can be recovered will be gathered and examined, while data and videos from the spacecraft before its destruction will be reviewed.