Spaceflight Insider

Wayward sailboat scrubs multi-million Antares launch to ISS

Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket Orb-3 CRS-3 Commercial Resupply Services 3 NASA Wallops Flight Facility Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A Photo Credit JD Taylor SpaceFlight Insider.jpg

Photo Credit: JD Taylor / SpaceFlight Insider

WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, Va. — The weather at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia – could not have been more perfect, with a 98 percent chance of favorable conditions for launch. Similarly, the Antares launch vehicle itself was primed and ready for flight. However, there will be no flight of Antares tonight – due to a sailboat. The boat drifted into the rocket’s path downrange. After attempts to contact the vessel’s occupants failed, the launch team at Wallops’ Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) – were forced to call a scrub.

Photo Credit: Elliot Severn / SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: Elliot Severn / SpaceFlight Insider

Just a few minutes prior to launch, at around 6:38 p.m. EDT (2238 GMT) it was announced that the launch team would remain in the built-in 12 minute hold as efforts were made to get the boat and its occupants out of the way. The Antares rocket was poised ready to fly in a south-easterly direction.

As noted, the rocket’s trajectory – would have placed it directly in the path of the sailboat – forcing a scrub in case the rocket’s flight had to be aborted – and potentially striking the sail craft.

Launch is now slated to take place no-earlier-than 6:22:38 p.m. EDT (2222 GMT) on Tuesday, Oc. 28. As with tonight’s attempt, NASA and Orbital have 10 minutes within the launch window to get the rocket and its payload off the pad – and into the evening skies.

Tonight’s delay comes on the heels of a series of other launch delays which have pushed the launch back from a planned liftoff date of Sept. 21. The most serious cause of this delay – was Hurricane Gonzalo – which struck Bermuda as a Category 2 hurricane. A tracking station, critical to monitor Antares’ flight, is located on that island, forcing a delay to determine if any damage had been inflicted because of the storm (none was).

Following this, NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation, the manufacturer of both Antares and the SS Deke Slayton, Cygnus, spacecraft and its 5,000 lbs (2268 kilograms) of cargo set the launch date for Oct. 27.

This will mark the third operational flight of the Antares / Cygnus duo to the ISS as part of the $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract that the Dulles, Virginia-based aerospace company has with NASA. Orbital is contracted to carry out some eight supply runs to the orbiting laboratory. Company officials expressed their displeasure about the irresponsible actions which caused tonight’s scrub.

“…a sailboat captain…a sailboat ‘operator,’ I should say, as captain implies a sense of responsibility,” said Orbital’s Vice President and General Manager Frank Culbertson.

After the scrub was declared, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility issued the following statement:

The launch this evening was postponed because of a boat in the mariner avoidance area. While we are disappointed, as you are, public safety is paramount to us when conducting a rocket launch. Pre-determined safety rules are established and we don’t launch unless all criteria are met. Antares is now rescheduled for 6:22 p.m. EDT, Tuesday, Oct. 28.

Photo Credit: NASA Wallops Flight Facility

Photo Credit: NASA Wallops Flight Facility



Welcome to Spaceflight Insider! Be sure to follow us on Facebook: Spaceflight Insideras well as on Twitter at: @SpaceflightIns






Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Do we have any details about who was operating the sailboat? Will they be charged? Surely they took photos of the boat and have some way of identifying it, why didn’t the coast guard apprehend them?

This is a common occurance and you cannot apprehend people or punish them for wandering into flight paths.

I’m fairly sure ignoring attempts to communicate and staying in the flight path causing it to be rescheduled and wasting so much money, surely they should be forced to pay for a fraction of it.
You Don’t go and park your car next to a train track and ignore the train, forcing it to not be able to travel to its destination for fear of hitting and hurting you. they obstructed the flight path, wouldnt communicate, and wouldnt move. if there isnt some law that could be used to apprehend them and hold them accountable, there needs to be.If a launch so much as tips a boat over everyone will blame NASA, not the idiot that ignored the warnings, didnt have the communications on, and didnt pay attention.

Simply pathetic! We have tug boats for a reason, and where the hell was the coast guard? The biggest question is why the water access isnt closed off with a floating barbed wire fence. This isnt rocket science here, a complete idiot could set up a better perimeter defense then what is in place. These private companies simply don’t have what it takes to prevent a terrorist take over of an active rocket.

kosmoscanyon: The boat wandered into the downrange area where there is the potential for the rocket to crash should an abort be required. That area is literally hundreds of square miles. You cannot fence it in. The boat operator failed to check restricted zones (they are posted just as they are for airplanes) and they could be cited for that violation. If they have done this before and they hold maritime certificates, they could lose their ability to sail.

Actually, yes, this IS rocket science. The area closed off to marine traffic during a launch covers hundreds of square miles of open ocean. You can’t just surround it with a fence.

Yes pathetic is right, but the patheticness falls on Orbital for not being aware of a potential invasion of a sea craft and not being able to alleviate the potential problem before it becomes a real problem. 12 minutes before launch you realize you have a problem ? total incompetence.

America’s space program scrubbed due to a felonious boat? How pathetic is America’s space program if we cannot muster the courage to launch in spite of a few broken rules. The odds of a piece of debris hitting the boat are astronomical. The odds of America falling behind in space are 100%. What a political blunder. Why aren’t we on the moon and Mars? Because we’re afraid of breaking a few rules. Cowards.

OK, regarding some of these previous comments: first of all, yes, you can apprehend and punish people for wandering into flight paths. The area was closed by a Notice to Mariners, which specified that fines and arrest authority are permissible by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Virginia Marine Police. Second, the perimeter of the restricted zone is at least a couple of hundred miles, so no one is going to throw up a barbed wire fence in the water of that length just to take it down a few hours later. Third, Orbital Sciences and NASA were aware of the sea craft well before the 12-minute mark: the 12-minute mark is just where they had previously scheduled a potential launch hold in case there were any problems. Prior to the hold they had been regularly announcing updates on the situation with the boat, which was something like 40 miles out in the sea. Also, Orbital Sciences does not operate a navy so I’m not sure what you expect them to have done about it. Attempts were made to contact the boat, presumably by the Coast Guard or Virginia authorities via radio, and those attempts were either unsuccessful or the boat was not able to leave the restricted area before the launch window closed. The Coast Guard does have ships that can intercept and hail sea craft but the restricted zone is huge and they can’t be everywhere at once.

Here’s my take as a sailor:

1) For starters, the restricted area is clearly marked on charts and labeled as “Danger Zone 334.130.” (cue Kenny Loggins). When you google 334.130 you will get the entire text of the law, which will also refer you to the Notice to Mariners.

2) Interestingly, to this day I cannot find the actual Notice to Mariners, which is supposed to be posted weekly by the Coast Guard at, assuming USCG District 5, which Wallops is in.

3) Boats below a certain length are not required to listen to Channel 16 or even carry a VHF. Sure, we don’t know if this boat was long enough to have one, but that would be speculation anyway.

In summary, there are two culpable parties here (in my opinion):

1) The captain, for failing to practice basic due diligence. He/she should at least have been aware of the permanently marked danger area (launch or no launch, it’s always marked on charts). And even without an NtM, it was a bit obvious that there was a launch going on that evening. And even if it had not been obvious, if it says don’t enter during launch ops then find out when launch ops are. Hardly difficult to google Wallops and launch.

2) NASA and/or USCG, for failing to post an NtM containing the information about the launch. Of course, I would stand corrected if I simply missed the NtM, but if I did, please show me where it is. Note: you cannot possibly patrol the entire zone, so intercepting within the 10-minute window would have been next to impossible. So I wouldn’t fault them for that.

Personally, I avoid restricted areas like the plague. I sail out of Herrington Harbour (Deale, MD), and I can’t believe how many people regularly and cluelessly traverse the Naval Research Lab restricted area, which you’re only allowed to do between 1300 and 1700 on Sundays. Last thing I want is an errand (or targeted) torpedo up my tailpipe.

Anyway, multiple parties at fault. But lets wait for more facts to come out before charging to conclusions.

As a sailboat owner,,and space enthusiast,,thanks Bay sailor for putting some reality back into criticism of the boat operator….Yes, he made a mistake, but some attempt should have been made to intercept him first…

Hopefully the USCG will have some helicopters on standby this evening to pre-patrol the area and ensure there are no more craft in the restricted area.

Orbital knew about the boat an hour before launch and did nothing about it ? Come on , be real, this is total neglect on Orbitals part for not having a plan of attack. Knowing there is a potential problem, and not doing anything about it or having a way to deal with it should raise some concern for NASA about this contractor. Patrolling the area is way cheaper than a scrub turnaround.

There is a reason ranges schedule multiple days for one launch. I have over 10 years experience with ranges and the day you do not have a red range due to people and or bad weather can be fairly rare. Sometimes cargo ships get in the way sometimes fishing vessels and this is not the first sailboat to foul a range. All range operations require patience and money if you do not have those you will not be successful. As stated already the range area is large and time to patrol the area varies due to sea states. The range patrols, safety officers are professionals and know what they are doing.

That’s not exactly what happened. While there WAS a sailboat in the downrange restricted area, it was towed clear in time to allow the restart of the countdown. According to the VHF a friend was monitoring (who’s friend was the RSO-Range Safety Officer on this mission) there was a second, large sportfish yacht with 9 men on board. When they were spotted, the boat first tried to elude the Navy fast-boat. The Navy fired several 50 cal warning shots and the boat quickly slowed and was boarded. The heated altercation on the radio eventually had the men caught in a lie saying they didn’t know there was even a launch, but once boarded, they discovered lots of camera gear and they admitted they were going to photograph it. They were all relatively intoxicated and were taken into custody.

If the sailboat was in the middle of a 200mi zone….what would the USCG be able to do. At 6kts, it would be a day sail. This is all silly talk.

Helicopter + loudspeaker/PA, as used by police forces – cheaper than a scrubbed launch?

Tinker Sailor Soldier

I agree with Bay Sailor, there does not appear to be a notice posted, so even if the spy who was on the sailboat commanding the equipment that took down the rocket had wanted to avoid the area, he may not have even received the notification.

Dear Tinker Sailor Soldier, I like the way you think!

NASA posted a “Notice to Mariners: Wallops Rocket Launch” that included the following text: “The Army Corp of Engineers Danger Zone will be in effect for all launch attempts per 33 CFR
(Code of Federal Regulations) Part 334. Fines and arrest authority are permissible by U.S. Coast
Guard and Virginia Marine Police.” The notice defined the locations of the public ship avoidance areas.

Is not the Coastguard the source of record for Notices to Mariners? Having multiple sources, if that is what happens, would asking for confusion, unless the chart or official designation of the zone specifically states that NASA is the source in this case. Could you post a link to this notice? – thanks.

Sorry, I should have looked before posting. It is this, I assume:

What TB says makes the most sense to me. Even though it is a rumor… Combine it with what Bay Sailor said about the torpedo in the tailpipe… DOESNT THE COAST GUARD SHOOT WHEN THERE IS NO RESPONSE!?!?! If anything… Commandere the boat and get the passengers out of the area and their boat is left at their expense, if it was hit? Sounds fishy to me. Heard of another conspiracy theory that if it had happened on Monday as planned, during the Redskins Cowboys game, would’ve been an EMP type “terrorist” attack on the whole east coast… Maybe crisis averted?

⚠ Commenting Rules

Post Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *