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NASA unmanned rocket explodes during liftoff

(NASA)


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WALLOPS ISLAND, Virginia — An unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded moments after liftoff Tuesday evening, with debris falling in flames over the launch site in Virginia. No injuries were reported following the first catastrophic launch in NASA's commercial spaceflight effort.

The Orbital Antares rocket was scheduled to launch at 3:45 p.m. from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia, according to an ATK news release. The spacecraft exploded as it blasted off an Antares rocket a few seconds after the liftoff, according to NBC News.

The spaceship was carrying a Cygnus cargo logistics spacecraft destined for the International Space Station at the time of the explosion, the news release said. The Cygnus spacecraft was filled with 5,000 pounds of food, water and other gear for the astronauts currently living on the space station, NBC News said.

"While it's a bummer that a resupply mission to the ISS has blown up on the launch pad, and that is going to be visually spectacular, NASA and the other nation's involved in the ISS never let it get so that a single resupply mission is super critical to the ability of the astronauts to work there, " said Clark Planetarium director, Seth Jarvis. "It's a setback, but it doesn't in any way jeopardize the ISS, their safety or their productivity."

Utah-based company, ATK, developed and provided the motor for the rocket, a CASTOR 30XL, according to the news release. Jarvis said that ATK developed the "upper stage of the engine," but the lower half, liquid-fueled engine that blew up on the launchpad was built and made by AeroJet Rocketdyne.

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Orbital Sciences' 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.

Bill Wrobel, director of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, said crews are letting the fire burn out and have set up a perimeter to contain them in the darkness.

This was the second launch attempt for the mission. Monday evening's try was thwarted by a stray sailboat in the rocket's danger zone. The restrictions are in case of just such an accident that occurred Tuesday.

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.

The Wallops facility is small compared to major NASA centers like those in Florida, California and Texas. Those who work at Wallops Island joke that even people living on Virginia's Eastern Shore are surprised to learn about rocket launches there.

Michelle Murphy, an innkeeper at the Garden and Sea Inn, New Church, Virginia, where launches are visible across a bay about 16 miles away, saw the explosion.

"It was scary. Everything rattled," she said. "There were two explosions. The first one we were ready for. The second one we weren't. It shook the inn, like an earthquake. It was extremely intense."

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.

Until Tuesday, all of the supply missions by the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences and California-based SpaceX had been near-flawless.

Right afterward, 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.

It was the fourth Cygnus bound for the orbiting lab; the first flew just over a year ago. SpaceX is scheduled to launch another Dragon supply ship from Cape Canaveral in December.

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.

Contributing: Lee Lonsberry

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Faith Heaton Jolley
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