The NASA Antares rocket launch rescheduled for Tuesday after having to be scrubbed Monday night when a private sailboat ventured onto the launch field exploded unexpectedly just seconds after launch, and an investigation is now underway to determine what happened. All personnel are safe and accounted for, as this was an unmanned flight to the International Space Station (ISS), though there has been considerable damage to property and vehicles in the area surrounding the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, though NASA TV reports that the damage is limited to the grounds and not other areas of Wallops Island. No information other than that there were no casualties from the blast have been released. This was to be the third Cygnus resupply mission headed to the ISS.
The Orbital Sciences rocket issued a statement via Twitter calling the incident a “vehicle anomaly,” but did not give any further comment. Their Deputy General Manager for the Launch Services group, Richard Straka, has been put in charge of the investigation, and has already begun to have statements taken from witnesses on and off of the NASA facility grounds. The team conducting the inquiry will include representatives from Orbital Sciences, as well as NASA and spaceport officials. At the current time, the smoke plume resulting from the explosion has been reported as being visible from points all over Virginia. No statement has been made about whether there is anything in that cloud of smoke which might present a danger to anyone on the ground.
Witness descriptions say that the rocket began to lose upward momentum almost immediately upon liftoff, and started to fall back toward the ground before exploding in a sizeable fireball. Footage of the launch and blast have already hit YouTube and social media is blowing up with people looking for information about the failed launch. While there is no indication that the problem which caused the failure would not have happened if the rocket had been able to go last night as scheduled, considerable ire has been expressed on Twitter and other sites directed at the owner of the sailboat that caused last night’s scheduled launch to be postponed.
Approximately 5,000 pounds of cargo were loaded into the Cygnus spacecraft on board of the rocket, according to a NASA statement. Included in that were supplies for the ISS and experiments scheduled to be conducted. Prior to liftoff, there were no hints of any technical difficulties or issues with the rocket, and weather conditions were reported as completely favorable. In August, a SpaceX rocket detonated on its own automatically in response to an anomaly which had been detected just after liftoff. It is too soon to say whether it was a similar mechanism which was responsible for this launch, however.
Although no specific time has been announced, there has been mention made of a press conference which will give whatever details have been determined since the explosion. NASA TV is continuing to provide ongoing coverage, as they have been since the Antares launch.
By Jim Malone