Orbital’s Antares disaster aftermath – what now?
NASA’s Wallops Incident Response Team has completed an initial assessment of Wallops Island, Virginia, following the explosion of Orbital’s Antares rocket shortly after liftoff at 6:22 p.m. EDT (2222 GMT) Tuesday, Oct. 28, from Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The overall findings indicate the major elements of the launch complex infrastructure, such as the pad and fuel tanks, avoided serious damage, although some repairs will be necessary. It also appears that a significant amount of debris remains on the site.
“After up close visual inspections by the safety team, it still appears the launch site itself avoided major damage,” Orbital said in a statement. “There is some evidence of damage to piping that runs between the fuel and commodity storage vessels and the launch mount, but no evidence of significant damage to either the storage vessels or launch mount.”
NASA said that the initial assessment is only a cursory look and that it will take many more weeks to further understand and analyze the full extent of the effects of the event. A number of support buildings in the immediate area have broken windows and imploded doors. A sounding rocket launcher adjacent to the pad, and buildings nearest the pad, suffered the most severe damage.
No hazardous substances were detected at sampled locations and there have been no obvious signs of water pollution.
Keith Koehler, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility spokesman, said that about 25 small pieces of the rocket have been reported to NASA by the public, ranging in size from a postage stamp to a sheet of paper. Larger pieces fell within NASA’s designated hazard zone.
Ron Wolff, an Accomack County supervisor, whose restaurant lost a window to the blast, said his NASA and Orbital customers told him that the damage to the pad doesn’t appear to be as bad as was first feared.
Orbital has formed a permanent Accident Investigation Board (AIB) comprised of company officials, along with representatives from NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) providing overall oversight of the process.
Russian space rocket engine-makers partnering with the U.S. constructors of the destroyed launch vehicle have not yet been asked to join the accident inquiry. Russian News Agency TASS revealed that the Kuznetsov engine-manufacturer, who produced the NK-33 engines, which were then modified by Aerojet Rocketdyne are not on the fact-finding team. Kuznetsov is Russia’s leading manufacturer of aviation gas-turbine and liquid-fueled rocket engines.
They have been used to power the Russian manned spaceships – Vostok, Voskhod, Soyuz as well as the Progress space freighter. The company’s engineers have been advising the U.S. side on adapting the Russian engine for use on Antares. A Ukrainian aerospace company which took part in designing and manufacturing the Antares has launched its own investigation. Under the terms of the project, the Yuzhnoye company designed and manufactured the first stage of the rocket.
“We’ve begun the ‘hotwash’ already and are scrutinizing the possible causes of the explosion,” the press service of the Yuzhnoye design bureau said. “The results will be reported later.”
In addition to damage to the launch pad, NASA lost tons of supplies, including equipment and food for the station’s crew. Science also took a big hit in the explosion.
The spacecraft was loaded with more than 1,600 pounds (725 kg) worth of science experiments, including an investigation to chemically analyze meteors as they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. It also carried a prototype satellite owned by Redmond, Washington-based startup Planetary Resources Inc., which is developing technology to mine asteroids. The satellite, designated A3, was to be released into space by a commercially-owned small spacecraft launcher aboard the station.
As mentioned, another of the science experiments onboard was Meteor, a high-definition camera that would’ve been the first dedicated instrument to monitor meteor showers from the space station. The camera was scheduled to spend two years perched behind the Window Observational Research Facility (WORF ), which looks down on Earth, allowing the instrument to measure the trajectories, size, and composition of meteors careening through the atmosphere.
Michael Fortenberry, a principal engineer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and the payload developer of Meteor was watching the launch remotely when the rocket exploded. Although he was shocked, his experience in aerospace has prepared him for all kinds of setbacks, Wired.com reported.“Anytime you do something like this, there’s a chance there’s going to be an accident or failure.” But, he added, of all the failures he’s seen in his career, “this is by far the most catastrophic.” While he wasn’t at the launch, his colleagues were. “They were pretty shocked also. Luckily, nobody was hurt and all of the equipment can be replaced.”
University of Texas’ (UT) Radiometer Atmospheric Cubesat Experiment (RACE ), developed to measure water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere, was also on board the ill-fated rocket. Created in the students’ spare time, RACE was a passion project. “You come in on weekends and they are here. You come in on holidays and they are here,” UT engineering professor Glenn Lightsey said. “They really see the value of what they are doing and they are really motivated by it.”
Though their 18 months of hard work disappeared in a matter of seconds, Lightsey and his students are not deterred by this setback. “We could all turn away from aerospace,” said one of the students Parker Francis, “but we are stronger than that, and more passionate than that. This mission was taken away from us, but it won’t prevent us from pushing on and getting important scientific missions out there.”
Lessons Learned: Space is Hard
Space experts say the explosion doesn’t undercut NASA’s reliance on ‘NewSpace’ companies like Orbital. “It’s going to take a little while to sort through all of this stuff, so be very careful with first reports,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human space exploration and operations, told reporters.
“It’s well-known that if you’re developing a new rocket design you’re going to lose three of the first 10,” former NASA administrator Mike Griffin said. “That happens. Orbital’s record so far has been great. They’ve lost one out of five. I don’t think anybody’s surprised by that. We just need to fix it and move on.”
“It’s obviously tragic and upsetting, but we’ll move on,” Griffin added.
His views were shared by other industry experts. “We can’t allow the one incident of the Antares vehicle loss to smear space commercialization in Washington and on the Hill,” Boston-based space analyst Charles Lurio said.
Dan Dumbacher, former deputy associate administrator of NASA’s human exploration program, said the explosion doesn’t undercut the U.S.’ decision to rely on these new space companies. “I don’t think it says anything at all,” Dumbacher noted. “It says space is hard.”
“I want to praise the launch team, range safety, all of our emergency responders and those who provided mutual aid and support on a highly-professional response that ensured the safety of our most important resource – our people,” said Bill Wrobel, Wallops director. “In the coming days and weeks ahead, we’ll continue to assess the damage on the island and begin the process of moving forward to restore our space launch capabilities. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will rebound stronger than ever.”
As a result of the failure, Orbital’s future launches could be delayed for a year – or more. “I would hope it would not be more than a year,” said David Thompson, Orbital’s CEO. “We intend to as quickly as we can bounce back from this failure.”
The planned merger with the defense and aerospace business of Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK ) was also thrown into question when ATK said it was reviewing the deal. In addition, Orbital shares went down 14 percent following the accident.
Orbital’s senior managers have begun developing a comprehensive plan to maintain the cargo supply line between Earth and the International Space Station. This is meant to allow Orbital to fulfill it’s commitment to NASA for delivering cargo to the orbiting laboratory.
Current priorities are on finding, cataloging and securing any elements of the first stage’s propulsion system that will be of particular interest to the AIB, as well as any cargo that may be found at the site. With adverse weather predicted for the weekend, they do not want to lose any evidence or any of the intact cargo that might have survived the mishap. Orbital expects the process of cataloging and securing all the remaining debris to continue for several days.
This article originally appeared on Astro Watch and can be viewed here: Antares
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.