NASA: Rocket explosion damage could have been worse

An aerial view of the Wallops Island launch facilities taken by the Wallops Incident Response Team Oct. 29 following the failed launch attempt of Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares rocket Oct. 28 (Photo by NASA/Terry Zaperach).

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. (AP/WAVY) — NASA released an initial damage assessment Wednesday evening, following Tuesday’s liftoff explosion of the Antares rocket.

The launch pad at Wallops Flight Facility was damaged, as well as support buildings and other equipment nearest to the pad. But after a preliminary investigation conducted from an airplane, a spokesperson for Orbital Sciences Corp., the company that launched the failed rocket, said damage was not as severe as was possible.

“The good news is, it appears, from preliminary observations, that the launch complex seems to have spared the worst. It seems to be in relatively good shape. Certainly there’s going to be some damage, there’s some repair work to be done, but the major elements of the launch complex seem to be okay,” explained Orbital Sciences Corp. spokesperson Barron Beneski.

NASA said the environmental effects of the explosion were largely contained to the southern third of Wallops Island. The Coast Guard and Virginia Marine Resources Commission reported no signs of water pollution.

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Orbital Sciences said it hopes to know soon what caused the explosion of its Antares rocket on Tuesday, but Beneski cautioned against jumping to conclusions, despite a top-ranking company employee speculating on a conference call with investors that the engine could be to blame.

“Until we go through all the data and video and all the information that we will have at our fingertips, we just don’t know, and we aren’t prepared to say that,” Beneski told WAVY.com.

The unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded six seconds after liftoff, with debris falling in flames over the launch site at Wallops Flight Facility. No injuries were reported, following the first catastrophic launch in NASA’s commercial spaceflight effort.

Orbital wants people around the crash site to call their Incident Response Team at 757-824-1295, if they see debris in the area.

Beneski said the debris could be contaminated by fuel that would have propelled the spacecraft, once it got into orbit. That fuel is toxic to humans. So far, NASA said none of the debris homeowners reported finding has been toxic.

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Shortly after the incident, Orbital, NASA, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the FAA, formed an accident review board. They expect initial investigation of data and eyewitness accounts could take about a week.

“The rocket and the spacecraft send back to the control centers a tremendous amount of data, and that all has to be gathered up, and then our engineering team, together with NASA, pours over the data that provides a lot of information about the last moments of the Antares rocket,” Beneski explained.

Orbital’s investigative team was out at Wallops Wednesday, searching for debris itself, assessing damage and focusing on recovery efforts. NASA said the response team will open the area of Wallops Island north of the flagpole, opposite the launch pad location, sot he Navy can return to work there.

Orbital said it will not fly again until it finds out what went wrong with the rocket and until the problem is fixed.

“We will come back to Wallops Island. We will fly again, and as soon as we can safely with confidence, and as soon as we can start delivery cargo to the space station,” Orbital’s executive vice president Frank Culbertson said.

Lieut. Gov. Ralph Norman said the flop is just a temporary setback.

“As NASA continues its investigation into this occurrence, there will be lessons learned, and I am confident that future missions to the International Space Station will resume at NASA Wallops,” he said.

Orbital said repairing the launch pad at Wallops Island is a high priority before its rockets are back in the air.

“Right now, this is only pad certified for launching the Antares rocket. So, repairing it will be one of the our highest priorities. We’ll work very closely with the State of Virginia, with NASA to make sure that is done as quickly and as safely as possible,” Culbertson said.

The accident is 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.

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