(NASA TV screengrab)
An Orbital Sciences Corp Antares rocket exploded seconds after liftoff from the Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia Tuesday, destroying a Cygnus spacecraft carrying 5,000 pounds of cargo for the International Space Station.
No injuries were reported. The extent of damage to the seaside launch complex was not immediately available, nor the cause of the accident.
“We don’t really have any early indications of exactly what might have failed,” Orbital Sciences executive vice president Frank Culbertson told reporters after the accident.
“What we know so far is pretty much what everybody saw on the video: The ascent stopped, there was some disassembly of the first stage … and then it fell to Earth. We don’t have access to all the data yet,” Culbertson said.
The 139-foot tall rocket blasted off from a commercially owned launch pad at 6:22 p.m. EDT. Launch had been delayed one day after a boat sailed into a restricted safety zone beneath the rocket’s intended flight path.
Tuesday’s liftoff occurred right on time but the flight ran into trouble about 10 seconds later. Range safety officers radioed commands to explode the rocket after about 20 seconds. Flaming debris rained down on the southern end of Wallops Islands.
“It’s too early to comment on how bad the damage is to the pad. We know there was some. We don’t know the extent yet,” Bill Wrobel, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, told reporters.
Orbital Sciences and NASA immediately launched an investigation in the accident, the first since the U.S. space agency turned to commercial companies to resupply the station after the space shuttles were retired.
“We will understand what happened hopefully soon and we’ll get things back on track,” Culbertson told the launch team.
“We’ve all seen this happen in our business before and we’ve all seen the teams recover from this. We will do the same,” he said.
Orbital Sciences has previously flown its Antares rocket four times, all successfully. The company is one of two hired by NASA to fly cargo to the space station. The second company, privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, is due to make its fourth cargo run to the station in December.
Tuesday’s launch included an enhanced upper-stage booster and was the third of eight under the firm’s $1.9 billion contract with NASA.
“We are very disappointed with the events of this evening,” NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini said. “The Cygnus spacecraft is a significant part of the logistics capability that supports the ISS.”
“But we have every confidence in the Orbital team and their ability to get to root cause, resolve the issues and get back to flying,” he added.
The Cygnus was not carrying any critical components for the station and the crew has a four- to six-month stockpile of food and supplies, Suffredini added.
A Russian cargo ship was due to launch to the station on Wednesday. Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which also flies cargo to the station for NASA is due to launch its next Dragon freighter on Dec. 9.