WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. (AP/WAVY) — An unmanned rocket on its way to the International Space Station exploded seconds after launch from Wallops Island Tuesday night.
It was Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket that blew up over the launch complex at Wallops Flight Facility, six seconds after liftoff at 6:22 p.m.
The company said everyone at the site had been accounted for, and the damage appeared to be limited to the facilities. And nothing on the lost flight was urgently needed by the six people living on the space station 260 miles into space.
Flames could be seen shooting into the sky as the sun set.
Orbital’s executive vice president Frank Culbertson said things began to go wrong 10 to 12 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 at this point.
“This is part of our job also … we will understand what happened, hopefully soon, and we’ll get things back on track. We’ve all seen this happen in our business before, and we’ve all seen the teams recover from this. And we will do the same,” Orbital Executive Vice President Frank Culbertson told his team over NASA TV, following the explosion.
The roomful of engineers and technicians were ordered to maintain all computer data for the ensuing investigation. Culbertson advised his staff not to talk to news reporters and to refrain from speculating among themselves.
“Definitely do not talk outside of our family,” said Culbertson, a former astronaut who once served on the space station.
The Northampton & Accomack County 911 Center told WAVY.com several nearby fire departments responded to the site of the explosion. Bill Wrobel, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, said crews let the fire burn out and set up a perimeter to contain them in the darkness.
“Virginia state and local emergency responders are playing a vital role in the wake of this evening’s failed launch on Wallops Island,” Governor Terry McAuliffe said Tuesday night. “Going forward, Virginia transportation, safety and environmental quality officials are ready to assist NASA and Orbital in assessing the impact of this evening’s accident and mitigating any environmental or public safety concerns.”
Culbertson said the top priority will be repairing the launch pad “as quickly and safely as possible.”
“We will not fly until we understand the root cause,” he said, noting that it is too soon to know how long that will take.
Culbertson advised people not to touch any rocket debris that might wash ashore or that came down on their property because hazardous materials were aboard, such as fuel that would have propelled the spacecraft, once it got into orbit.
Orbital wants people around the crash site to call their Incident Response Team at 757-824-1295, if they see debris in the area.
The Antares rocket was carrying a Cygnus cargo capsule, loaded with 5,000 pounds of gear for the astronauts living on the International Space Station. It was initially scheduled to launch Monday, and Orbital Sciences Corp. got within the 10-minute mark for liftoff, but a sailboat ended up in the restricted danger zone, and controllers halted the evening countdown.
About one-third of the contents of the Cygnus involved science research. 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 before their eyes, said NASA’s space station program manager Mike Suffredini. They were keeping abreast of what was happening.
The accident at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility was sure to draw criticism over the space agency’s growing reliance on private U.S. companies in this post-shuttle effort. NASA is paying billions of dollars to Orbital Sciences Corp. and the SpaceX company to make deliveries to the International Space Station, and it’s counting on SpaceX and Boeing to start flying U.S. astronauts to the orbiting lab as early as 2017.
The rocket launched Tuesday was the fourth Cygnus bound for the space station; the first flew just over a year ago. SpaceX is scheduled to launch another Dragon supply ship from Cape Canaveral in December.
Until Tuesday, all of the supply missions by the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences and California-based SpaceX had been near-flawless.
President Barack Obama has long championed this commercial space effort. He was in Wisconsin for a campaign rally and was kept abreast of the accident.
Support poured in from the space community late Tuesday night.
“Very sorry to see the Antares rocket launch failure,” said Chris Hadfield, a former Canadian astronaut who served as space station commander last year. “Spaceflight is hard. Very glad that no one was hurt.”
John Logdson, former space policy director at George Washington University, said it was unlikely to be a major setback to NASA’s commercial space plans. But he noted it could derail Orbital Sciences for a while given the company has just one launch pad and the accident occurred right above it.
The explosion hit Orbital Science’s stock, which fell more than 15 percent in after-hours trading.
By coincidence, the Russian Space Agency was proceeding with its own supply run on Wednesday, planned well before the U.S. mishap. The spacecraft arrived at the International Space Station six hours later, with three tons of food.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.