Tuesday’s explosion just after liftoff of a commercial rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station — and payload from a Redmond company — may ignite a debate over NASA’s use of private companies to carry government payloads into space.
The explosion of the Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket, which caused no injuries, sent debris falling in flames around NASA’s Wallops facility on the coast of Virginia. Flames could be seen shooting into the sky as the sun set.
Orbital is leading an investigation into the cause of what NASA described on its website as a “catastrophic anomaly.”
“Launch is a really tough business,” Bill Gerstenmaier, a NASA associate administrator, said at a news conference broadcast on the agency’s website.
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“The crew of the International Space Station is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies,” Gerstenmaier said. Six people are living on the space station 260 miles into space.
The company said everyone at the site had been accounted for, and the damage appeared to be limited to the facilities.
Now that the space shuttle fleet has been retired, NASA is eager to give private industry the job of carrying cargo and crews, to cut costs. Meanwhile, the space agency will focus on sending probes to asteroids and Mars.
It was the third such mission conducted by the aerospace company under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA that commercializes routine cargo flights previously conducted by the agency. Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — better known as SpaceX — has sent four missions to the station.
Last month, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to take astronauts to the space station beginning as early as 2017.
This Antares rocket carried a more powerful second-stage engine for the first time. The Cygnus cargo spacecraft was to circle in orbit until Sunday before proceeding to the space station.
The rocket was also carrying a satellite for Redmond-based Planetary Resources, a startup developing technology for mining asteroids.
Called the A3, the startup’s first asteroid-hunting satellite was designed to demonstrate and test the core technology and software of the company’s planned Arkyd 100 series of satellites for identifying asteroids with high rare-metals content.
Just after the rocket exploded, Planetary Resources commented on Twitter: “Live to fly another day. Onward!”
Orbital Sciences executive Frank Culbertson said things began to go wrong 10 seconds into the flight and it was all over in 20 seconds when what was left of the rocket came crashing down. He said he believes the range-safety staff sent a destruct signal before it hit the ground, but was not certain.
The Wallops facility is small compared with major NASA centers like those in Florida, California and Texas. Those who work at Wallops Island joke that even people living on Virginia’s Eastern Shore are surprised to learn about rocket launches there.
Michelle Murphy, an innkeeper at the Garden and Sea Inn in New Church, Va., where launches are visible across a bay about 16 miles away, saw the explosion.
“It was scary. Everything rattled,” she said. “There were two explosions. The first one we were ready for. The second one we weren’t. It shook the inn, like an earthquake. It was extremely intense.”
Bill Wrobel, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, said crews would let the fires burn out and set up a perimeter to contain them in the darkness.
This was the second launch attempt for the mission. Monday evening’s try was thwarted by a stray sailboat in the rocket’s danger zone. The restrictions are in case of an accident like the one Tuesday.
It was the fourth Cygnus bound for the orbiting lab; the first flew just over a year ago. SpaceX is scheduled to launch another Dragon supply ship from Cape Canaveral in December.
The Cygnus cargo ship Tuesday had held 5,000 pounds of experiments and equipment. By coincidence, the Russian Space Agency was proceeding with its own supply run on Wednesday, planned well before the U.S. mishap.
Among the instruments that were lost: a meteor tracker and 32 mini research satellites, along with numerous experiments compiled by schoolchildren.
The two Americans, three Russians and one German on the orbiting space station were watching a live video feed from Mission Control and saw the whole thing unfold, said NASA’s space station program manager, Mike Suffredini.
In 2009 and 2011, Orbital ran in to failures with its Taurus XL rocket. On both occasions, the rocket’s protective fairing did not separate properly from the rocket and didn’t allow the satellites it was carrying to reach orbit.
The failures shook the company and led it to name its newest rocket Antares — rather than its original name, Taurus II — to prevent the public from thinking they were the same.
Until Tuesday, all of the supply missions by the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences and California-based SpaceX had been nearly flawless.
President Obama has long championed this commercial space effort. He was in Wisconsin for a campaign rally and was kept abreast of the accident.
SpaceX’s billionaire founder and chief officer, Elon Musk — whose company is the face, in many ways, of the commercial effort — said he was sorry to learn about the failure. “Hope they recover soon,” he said in a tweet.
Compiled from Bloomberg News, The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, with reports by Seattle Times staff