Orbital Sciences Announces Way Forward Plan to Fulfill NASA Space Station Commitments

In the wake of last weeks disastrous failure of the Orbital Sciences commercial Antares rocket seconds after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on a critical resupply mission to the space station, Orbital’s Chairman announced a comprehensive way forward involving a two pronged strategy to quickly fulfill their cargo commitments to NASA as well as upgrade the rockets’ first stage propulsion system.

“Orbital announced comprehensive plans to fulfill its contract commitments under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program as well as to accelerate an upgrade of the Antares medium-class launcher’s main propulsion system, the company said in a statement and discussion by David Thompson, Orbital’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, during an investors conference call.

“Orbital is taking decisive action to fulfill our commitments to NASA in support of safe and productive operations of the Space Station,” said Thompson.

“While last week’s Antares failure was very disappointing to all of us, the company is already implementing a contingency plan to overcome this setback. We intend to move forward safely but also expeditiously to put our CRS cargo program back on track and to accelerate the introduction of our upgraded Antares rocket.”

The Orbital Sciences privately developed Antares rocket was doomed by a sudden mid-air explosion some 15 seconds after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, at 6:22 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, October 28.

A turbopump failure in one of the rockets two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 engines that power the first stage has been identified by Orbital’s Accident Investigation Board (AIB) as the probable cause of the huge explosion that destroyed the booster and its NASA payload in a raging fireball after liftoff.

Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps.  These engines powered the successful Antares  liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Soviet era NK-33 engines refurbished as the AJ26 exactly like pictured here probably caused Antares rocket failure on Oct. 28, 2014. Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The AJ26 engines were originally manufactured some 40 years ago in the then Soviet Union as the NK-33. They were refurbished and “Americanized” by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

“While still preliminary and subject to change, current evidence strongly suggests that one of the two AJ26 main engines that powered Antares first stage failed about 15 seconds after ignition. At this time, we believe the failure likely originated in or directly affected the turbopump machinery of this engine, but I want to stress that more analysis will be required to confirm that this finding is correct,” said Thompson.

Overall this was the 5th Antares launch using the AJ26 engines.

AJ26 engine failure was immediately suspected, though by no means certain, based on an inspection of numerous photos and videos from myself and many others that clearly showed a violent explosion emanating from the base of the two stage rocket.

First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The remainder of the first stage and Antares entire upper stage was clearly intact at the moment of the explosion in all the imagery.

Thompson said Orbital is accelerating contingency planning and is looking at several alternate rocket suppliers in the US and Europe to launch Orbital’s Cygnus cargo freighter to the station.

Cygnus has functioned perfectly to date and was designed to launch on other vehicles.

“Orbital will employ the inherent flexibility of our Cygnus cargo spacecraft that permits it to be launched on third party launch vehicles and to accommodate heavier cargo loads as allowed by more capable launchers. This option had already been contemplated in previous contingency plans and product improvement roadmaps and its implementation should be relatively straightforward.”

Thompson furthermore stated that the company would need to launch one or two Cygnus spacecraft on alternate providers and hope to do so during 2015 so as to keep their CRS resupply commitments to NASA on track and with minimal delay.

The next Antares/Cygnus launch from Wallops had been scheduled for no earlier than April 2015.

The April launch had been scheduled to introduce the enhanced, longer Cygnus with the capability to carry a significantly heavier cargo load to the ISS.

This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12   Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by  Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo.  Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12 Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo. Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

By employing the enhanced Cygnus, Orbital hopes to fulfill its entire CRS contract cargo up mass commitment to NASA in four flights instead of five by the end of 2016.

“Taking advantage of the spacecraft’s flexibility, we will purchase one or two non-Antares launch vehicles for Cygnus flights in 2015 and possibly in early 2016 and combine them with several upgraded Antares rocket launches of additional Cygnus spacecraft in 2016 to deliver all remaining CRS cargo,” said Thompson.

“By consolidating the cargo of five previously-planned CRS missions into four more capable ones, we believe we can maintain a similar or perhaps even a somewhat better delivery schedule than we were on before last week’s launch failure, completing all current CRS program cargo deliveries by the end of 2016.”

The possible launch providers include a United Launch Alliance Atlas V, a SpaceX Falcon 9 or a rocket from the European Space Agency at the Guiana Space Center.

Orbital had previously announced and managers told Universe Today that the company already had decided on plans to integrate a new first stage engine in a new and upgraded second generation version of Antares.

But no one at Orbital will confirm the identity of the chosen first stage engines.

“We will accelerate the introduction of Antares’ upgraded propulsion system, advancing its initial launch date from the previously planned 2017 into 2016,” said Thompson.

Thompson also said the AJ26 engine are unlikely to be used again without complete assurances.

“Consequently, we will likely discontinue the use of the AJ26 rocket engines that had been used on the first five Antares vehicles unless and until those engines can be conclusively shown to be flight worthy,” Thompson stated.

See my exclusive photos herein showing the AJ26 engines with their original NK-33 stencil, during prelaunch processing and mating to the first stage inside Orbital’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at NASA Wallops.

The NK-33 was originally designed and manufactured in the 1960s by the Kuznetsov Design Bureau for the Soviet Union’s planned N1 rocket to propel cosmonauts to the moon during the space race with NASA’s hugely successful Apollo Moon Landing program.

The 14 story Antares rocket is a two stage vehicle.

The liquid fueled first stage is filled with about 550,000 pounds (250,000 kg) of Liquid Oxygen and Refined Petroleum (LOX/RP) and powered by a pair of AJ26 engines that generate a combined 734,000 pounds (3,265kN) of sea level thrust.

The Oct. 28 launch disaster was just the latest in a string of serious problems with the AJ-26/NK-33 engines.

Earlier this year an AJ26 engine failed and exploded during pre launch acceptance testing on a test stand on May 22, 2014 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

Besides completely destroying the AJ26 engine, the explosion during engine testing also severely damaged the Stennis test stand. It has taken months of hard work to rebuild and restore the test stand and place it back into service.

Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes violently and is consumed in a gigantic aerial fireball seconds after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014 at 6:22 p.m.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes violently and is consumed in a gigantic aerial fireball seconds after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014 at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The doomed mission was bound for the International Space Station (ISS) on a flight to bring up some 5000 pounds of (2200 kg) of science experiments, research instruments, crew provisions, spare parts, spacewalk and computer equipment and gear on a critical resupply mission in the Cygnus resupply ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

The Orbital-3, or Orb-3, mission was to be the third of eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS through 2016 under the NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract award valued at $1.9 Billion.

Orbital Sciences is under contract to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware for the eight ISS flights.

I was an eyewitness to the awful devastation suffered by the Orb-3 mission from the press viewing site at NASA Wallops located at a distance of about 1.8 miles away from the launch complex.

I was interviewed by NBC News and you can watch the entire story and see my Antares explosion photos featured at NBC Nightly News on Oct. 29 here.

Watch the Antares launch disaster unfold into a raging inferno in this dramatic sequence of my photos shot on site – here.

Check out my raw video of the launch – here.

Read my firsthand account of the disaster as viewed from the press site, with photos – here.

Watch my interview at Universe Today Weekly Space Hangout on Oct 31, 2014 -here.

Watch here for Ken’s onsite reporting direct from NASA Wallops.

Damage is visible to Launch Pad 0A following catastrophic failure of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket moments after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Damage is visible to Launch Pad 0A following catastrophic failure of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket moments after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares rocket stand erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before their first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, targeted for Oct. 27 at 6:45 p.m.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares rocket stand erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before their first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, targeted for Oct. 28. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Soviet Era Engines Likely Caused Antares Catastrophic Rocket Failure

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – Investigators probing last week’s catastrophic failure of an Antares commercial rocket moments after liftoff, are pointing the finger at the rocket’s Soviet-era built engines as the probable cause of the huge explosion that destroyed the booster and its NASA payload in a raging fireball after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, according to Orbital Sciences managers.

The Orbital Sciences privately developed Antares rocket was doomed by a sudden mid-air explosion some 15 seconds after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, at 6:22 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, October 28.

Antares’ first stage is powered by a pair of refurbished Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 engines originally manufactured some 40 years ago in the then Soviet Union and originally designated as the NK-33. Overall this was the 5th Antares launch using the AJ26 engines.

See my exclusive photos above and below showing the AJ26 engines with their original NK-33 stencil, during prelaunch processing and mating to the first stage inside Orbital’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at NASA Wallops.

The NK-33 was originally designed and manufactured in the 1960s by the Kuznetsov Design Bureau for the Soviet Union’s planned N1 rocket to propel cosmonauts to the moon during the space race with NASA’s hugely successful Apollo Moon Landing program.

First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Rocket developer Orbital Sciences Corp. said today, Nov. 5, that the launch mishap was probably due to “a failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage one main engines.”

Engineers assisting Orbital’s Accident Investigation Board (AIB) say that failure in the AJ26 turbopump is the likely cause. The AIB is chaired by David Steffy, Chief Engineer of Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group.

“While the work of the AIB continues, preliminary evidence and analysis conducted to date points to a probable turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage one main engines,” Orbital said in a statement.

“As a result, the use of these engines for the Antares vehicle likely will be discontinued,” said Orbital.

“We will likely discontinue the use of AJ26 rocket engines that had been used on the first five Antares launch vehicles unless and until those engines can be conclusively shown to be flight worthy,” noted David Thompson, Orbital’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, during an investor conference call.

Orbital’s options for the way forward will be outlined in a separate story.

Side view of two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today.  These engines powered the successful Antares  liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Side view of two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014, at NASA Wallops, Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Oct. 28 launch disaster was just the latest in a string of serious problems with the AJ-26/NK-33 engines.

Earlier this year an AJ26 engine failed and exploded during pre launch acceptance testing on a test stand on May 22, 2014, at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

Besides completely destroying the AJ26 engine, the explosion during engine testing also severely damaged the Stennis test stand. It has taken months of hard work to rebuild and restore the test stand and place it back into service.

An extensive engine analysis, recheck and test stand firings by Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital Sciences engineers was conducted to clear this new pair of engines for flight.

Aerojet Rocketdyne purchased approximately 40 NK-33 engines in the mid-1990s and ‘Americanized’ them with multiple modifications including a gimbal steering mechanism.

AJ26 engine failure was immediately suspected, though by no means certain, based on an inspection of numerous photos and videos from myself and many others that clearly showed a violent explosion emanating from the base of the two stage rocket.

Up close view of two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Universe Today.  These engines powered the successful Antares  liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Up close view of two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Universe Today. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014, at NASA Wallops, Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The remainder of the first stage and Antares entire upper stage was clearly intact at the moment of the explosion in all the imagery.

Antares was carrying the unmanned Cygnus cargo freighter on a mission dubbed Orb-3 to resupply the six person crew living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) with science experiments and needed equipment.

The AIB is making rapid progress in assessing the accident’s cause based on an analysis of the rocket’s telemetry as well as the substantial amounts of debris collected from the rocket and the Cygnus cargo freighter at the Wallops launch site.

A preliminary review of telemetry and video data has been conducted and substantial debris from the Antares rocket and its Cygnus payload has been collected and examined.

Antares rocket begins rollout atop transporter erector to Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Island Facility, VA., on Sept. 13, 2013.  Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket begins rollout atop transporter erector to Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Island Facility, VA., on Sept. 13, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

The 14 story Antares rocket is a two stage vehicle.

The liquid fueled first stage is filled with about 550,000 pounds (250,000 kg) of Liquid Oxygen and Refined Petroleum (LOX/RP) and powered by a pair of AJ26 engines that generate a combined 734,000 pounds (3,265kN) of sea level thrust.

The doomed mission was bound for the International Space Station (ISS) on a flight to bring up some 5000 pounds of (2200 kg) of science experiments, research instruments, crew provisions, spare parts, spacewalk and computer equipment and gear on a critical resupply mission in the Cygnus resupply ship.

Antares rocket stand erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before their first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, targeted for Oct. 27 at 6:45 p.m.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares rocket stands erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before the first night launch planned from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, which ended in disaster. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Orbital-3, or Orb-3, mission was to be the third of eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS through 2016 under the NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract award valued at $1.9 Billion.

Orbital Sciences is under contract to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts, and hardware for the eight ISS flights.

I was an eyewitness to the awful devastation suffered by the Orb-3 mission from the press viewing site at NASA Wallops located at a distance of about 1.8 miles away from the launch complex.

I was interviewed by NBC News and you can watch the entire story and see my Antares explosion photos featured at NBC Nightly News on Oct. 29 here.

Watch the Antares launch disaster unfold into a raging inferno in this dramatic sequence of my photos shot on site here.

Check out my raw video of the launch here.

Read my first hand account here.

Watch my interview at Universe Today’s Weekly Space Hangout on Oct 31, 2014, here.

Watch here for Ken’s onsite reporting direct from NASA Wallops.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes violently and is consumed in a gigantic aerial fireball seconds after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014 at 6:22 p.m.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket explodes violently and is consumed in a gigantic aerial fireball seconds after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Antares Explosion Investigation Focuses on First Stage Propulsion Failure

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – Investigators probing the Antares launch disaster are focusing on clues pointing to a failure in the first stage propulsion system that resulted in a loss of thrust and explosive mid-air destruction of the commercial rocket moments after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, at 6:22 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, October 28.

The highly anticipated first night launch of the Orbital Sciences Corp. privately developed Antares rocket blasted off nominally and ascended for about 15 seconds until a rapid fire series of sudden and totally unexpected loud explosions sent shock waves reverberating all around the launch site and surroundings for miles and the rocket was quickly consumed in a raging fireball.

Antares was carrying the unmanned Cygnus cargo freighter on a mission dubbed Orb-3 to resupply the six person crew living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) with science experiments and needed equipment.

The 14 story Antares rocket is a two stage vehicle. The liquid fueled first stage is filled with about 550,000 pounds (250,000 kg) of Liquid Oxygen and Refined Petroleum (LOX/RP) and powered by a pair of AJ26 engines originally manufactured some 40 years ago in the then Soviet Union and designated as the NK-33.

Earlier this year an AJ26 engine failed and exploded during acceptance testing on May 22, 2014, at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. An extensive analysis and recheck by Orbital Sciences was conducted to clear this pair for flight.

I was an eyewitness to the awful devastation suffered by the Orb-3 mission from the press viewing site at NASA Wallops located at a distance of about 1.8 miles away from the launch complex.

Numerous photos and videos from myself (see herein) and many others clearly show a violent explosion emanating from the base of the two stage rocket. The remainder of the first stage and the entire upper stage was clearly intact at that point.

Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps.  These engines powered the successful Antares  liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallops. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014, at NASA Wallops, Virginia, bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

NASA announced that Orbital Sciences is leading the investigation into the rocket failure and quickly appointed an Accident Investigation Board (AIB) chaired by David Steffy, Chief Engineer of Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group.

The AIB is working under the oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“Evidence suggests the failure initiated in the first stage after which the vehicle lost its propulsive capability and fell back to the ground impacting near, but not on, the launch pad,” Orbital said in a statement.

At the post launch disaster briefing at NASA Wallops, I asked Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s Executive Vice President and General Manager of its Advanced Programs Group, to provide any specifics of the sequence of events and failure, a timeline of events, and whether the engines failed.

“The ascent stopped, there was disassembly of the first stage, and then it fell to Earth. The way the accident investigation proceeds is we lock down all the data [after the accident]. Then we go through a very methodical process to recreate the data and evaluate it. We need time to look at what failed from both a video and telemetry standpoint,” Culbertson told Universe Today.

Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The rocket telemetry has now been released to the accident investigation board.

“Our engineers presented a very quick look assessment to the Accident Investigation Board at the end of the day. It appears the Antares vehicle had a nominal pre-launch and launch sequence with no issues noted,” Orbital said in a statement.

“All systems appeared to be performing nominally until approximately T+15 seconds at which point the failure occurred.”

Blastoff of the 14 story Antares rocket took place from the beachside Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA Wallops situated on the eastern shore of Virginia.

After the failure occurred the rocket fell back to the ground near, but not on top of, the launch pad.

“Prior to impacting the ground, the rocket’s Flight Termination System was engaged by the designated official in the Wallops Range Control Center,” said Orbital.

Technicians processing Antares rocket on Oct 26 to prepare for first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 27 at 6:45 p.m.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Technicians processing Antares rocket on Oct 26 to prepare for first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Since the rocket impacted just north of the pad, that damage was not as bad as initially feared.

From a public viewing area about two miles away, I captured some side views of the pad complex and damage it sustained.

Check out the details of my assessment in my prior article and exclusive photos showing some clearly discernible damage to the Antares rocket launch pad – here.

Damage is visible to Launch Pad 0A following catastrophic failure of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket moments after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Damage is visible to Launch Pad 0A following catastrophic failure of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket moments after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The doomed mission was bound for the International Space Station (ISS) on a flight to bring up some 5000 pounds of (2200 kg) of science experiments, research instruments, crew provisions, spare parts, and spacewalk and computer equipment and gear on a critical resupply mission in the Cygnus resupply ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

Among the top tasks of the AIB are “developing a ‘fault tree’ and a timeline of the important events during the launch sequence,” using the large volume of data available.

“We will analyze the telemetry. We have reams of data and telemetry that come down during launch and we will be analyzing that carefully to see if we can determine exactly the sequence of events, what went wrong, and then what we can do to fix it,” said Culbertson.

The accident team is also gathering and evaluating launch site debris.

“Over the weekend, Orbital’s Wallops-based Antares personnel continued to identify, catalogue, secure, and geolocate debris found at the launch site in order to preserve physical evidence and provide a record of the launch site following the mishap that will be useful for the AIB’s analysis and determination of what caused the Antares launch failure,” said Orbital.

Culberston expressed Orbital’s regret for the launch failure.

“We are disappointed we could not fulfill our obligation to the International Space Station program and deliver this load of cargo. And especially to the researchers who had science on board as well as to the people who had hardware and components on board for going to the station.”

“It’s a tough time to lose a launch vehicle and payload like this. Our team worked very hard to prepare it, with a lot of testing and analysis to get ready for this mission.”

Culbertson emphasized that Orbital will fix the problem and move forward.

“Something went wrong and we will find out what that is. We will determine the root cause and we will correct that. And we will come back and fly here at Wallops again. We will do all the things that are necessary to make sure it is as safe as we can make it, and that we solve the immediate problem of this particular mission.”

Cygnus pressurized cargo module - side view - during prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Culbertson noted that the public should not touch any rocket debris found.

“The investigation will include evaluating the debris around the launch pad. The rocket had a lot of hazardous equipment and materials on board that people should not be looking for or wanting to collect souvenirs. If you find anything that washes ashore or landed you should call the local authorities and definitely not touch it.”

The Orbital-3, or Orb-3, mission was to be the third of eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS through 2016 under the NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract award valued at $1.9 Billion.

Orbital Sciences is under contract to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts, and hardware for the eight ISS flights.

At this point the future is unclear.

Watch here for Ken’s onsite reporting direct from NASA Wallops.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Catastrophic Failure Dooms Antares Launch to Space Station – Gallery

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – Moments after a seemingly glorious liftoff, an Orbital Sciences Corp. commercial Antares rocket suffered a catastrophic failure and exploded into a spectacular aerial fireball over the launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia that doomed the mission bound for the International Space Station on Tuesday, October 28.

The 14 story tall Antares rocket blasted off at 6:22 p.m. EDT from the beachside Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA Wallops on only its 5th launch overall.

I witnessed and photographed the launch from the media viewing area on site at NASA Wallops from a distance of about 1.8 miles away.

This story is being updated. See a gallery of photos herein.

Antares was carrying Orbital’s privately developed Cygnus pressurized cargo freighter loaded with nearly 5000 pounds (2200 kg) of science experiments, research instruments, crew provisions, spare parts, spacewalk and computer equipment and gear on a critical resupply mission dubbed Orb-3 bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes intoan aerial fireball seconds after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014 at 6:22 p.m.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes into an aerial fireball seconds after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

It was the heaviest cargo load yet lofted by a Cygnus. Some 800 pounds additional cargo was loaded on board compared to earlier flights. That was enabled by using the more powerful ATK CASTOR 30XL engine to power the second stage for the first time.

Everything appeared normal at first. But within about five seconds or so there was obviously a serious mishap as the rocket was no longer ascending. It was just frozen in time. And I was looking directly at the launch, not through the viewfinder of my cameras.

Something was noticeably amiss almost instantly as the rocket climbed only very slowly, barely clearing the tower it seemed to me. The rocket failed to emerge from the normal huge plume of smoke and ash that’s purposely deflected away by the flame trench at the base of the pad.

I was stunned trying to comprehend what was happening because it was all so wrong.

It was absolutely nothing like the other Antares launches I’ve witnessed from the media site.

Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes into an aerial fireball seconds after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014 at 6:22 p.m.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes into an aerial fireball seconds after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014 at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

I knew as a scientist and journalist that I was watching a mounting disaster unfolding before my eyes.

Instead of ascending on an accelerating arc, a mammoth ball of fire, smoke and ash blew up the entire sky in front of us like a scene out of hell or war. Literally the sky was set on fire unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed.

A series of mid air explosions rocked the area. I could feel a slight pressure wave followed by a mild but noticeable heat wave passing by.

Then the rocket began to fall back to Earth. Then the ground blew up too as the rocket pieces hit the ground and exploded into a hail of smithereens in every direction.

By this time our NASA escorts starting yelling to abandon everything in place and head immediately for the buses and evacuate the area. The ground fire spread mostly to the northern portion of the pad and the expanding air borne plume also blew northwards. The ground fire was still burning over a half hour later.

Thankfully, everyone got out safe and there were no injuries due to the excellent effort by our NASA escorts trained for exactly these types of unexpected circumstances.

It’s heartbreaking for everyone’s painstaking efforts to get to the point of liftoff after years of effort to fulfill the critical need to resupply that station with the science equipment and experiments for which it was built.

More later

Antares rocket stand erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before their first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, targeted for Oct. 27 at 6:45 p.m.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares rocket stands erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before the first night launch planned from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, which ended in disaster. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Watch here for Ken’s onsite reporting direct from NASA Wallops.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

How to Watch Spectacular 1st Nighttime Antares Launch to ISS on Oct. 27 – Complete Viewing Guide

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – Tens of millions of US East Coast residents can expect a dinnertime spectacular for the first ever nighttime launch of the commercial Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket slated to blastoff on Monday evening, October 27, from a beachside NASA launch base along the eastern shore of Virginia – if the weather holds as currently forecast.

You can watch live, below.

Antares is carrying Orbital’s private Cygnus cargo freighter loaded with a diverse array of science experiments on a critical cargo resupply mission named Orb-3, and is bound for the International Space Station (ISS).



Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

NASA and Orbital Sciences are now targeting liftoff at 6:45 p.m. EDT on Oct. 27 from Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA Wallops Island Flight Facility on Virginia’s shore.

Viewing over New York City from River Road in North Bergen, New Jersey, looking south . Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
Viewing over New York City from River Road in North Bergen, New Jersey, looking south . Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.

The launch to the ISS was delayed three days due to Hurricane Gonzalo and its direct hit on the island of Bermuda which is also home to a critical rocket tracking station – as reported here. The tracking is required to ensure public safety.

If you have never seen a rocket launch, this could be the one for you – especially since its conveniently in the early evening and you don’t have to take the long trek to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Here’s our complete guide on “How to See the Antares/Cygnus Oct. 27 Blastoff” – chock full of viewing maps and trajectory graphics (above and below) from a variety of prime viewing locations, including historic and notable landmarks Washington, DC, NYC, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and more.

Viewing the launch across the tidal basin from the MLK Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
Viewing the launch across the tidal basin from the MLK Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.

Depending on local weather conditions, the Antares blastoff will be visible along much of the US eastern seaboard – stretching from Maine to South Carolina.

For precise viewing locations and sighting times, see the collection of detailed maps and trajectory graphics courtesy of Orbital Sciences and NASA.

Antares first night launch will also be visible to some inland regions, including portions of New England, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Of course the absolute best viewing will be locally in the mid-Atlantic region closest to Wallops Island.

Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft await launch on Orb 2 mission on July 13, 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility Facility, VA. LADEE lunar mission launch pad 0B stands adjacent to right of Antares. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft await launch on Orb 2 mission on July 13, 2014, from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility Facility, VA. LADEE lunar mission launch pad 0B stands adjacent to right of Antares. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Locally at Wallops you’ll get a magnificent view and hear the rockets thunder at either the NASA Wallops Visitor Center or the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge/Assateague National Seashore.

For more information about the Wallops Visitors Center, including directions, see: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/wallops/visitorcenter

The pressurized Cygnus cargo spacecraft is loaded with some 5,000 pounds of research experiments, top notch student science investigations from the NCESSE/SSEP, supplies, spare parts, and crew provisions on what will be the fourth Cygnus flight overall, including a demonstration flight in 2013.

Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops.  Science experiments from these students representing 15 middle and high schools across  America were selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-2 spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on July 13, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP).  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops. Science experiments from these students representing 15 middle and high schools across America were selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-2 spacecraft which launched to the ISS from NASA Wallops, VA, on July 13, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

This is the heaviest Cygnus cargo load to date because the Antares rocket is outfitted with a more powerful second stage from ATK – for the first time.

Altogether eight operational resupply missions will be flown for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. That’s the same contract NASA has with SpaceX and that company’s just completed Dragon CRS-4 mission which ended with a successful Pacific Ocean splashdown on Saturday, Oct. 25 – as I reported here.

Viewing the launch from the boardwalk at Virginia Beach, VA.  Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
Viewing the launch from the boardwalk at Virginia Beach, VA. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.

It is the third of eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS under Orbital’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA through 2016.

The Orbital-3, or Orb-3, mission is the third of the eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS under the NASA CRS award valued at $1.9 Billion.

This Cygnus resupply module, dubbed “SS Deke Slayton,” honors one of America’s original Mercury 7 astronauts, Donald “Deke” K. Slayton. He flew on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission in 1975 and championed commercial space endeavors after retiring from NASA in 1982. Slayton passed away in 1993.

NASA Television will broadcast live coverage of the event, including pre- and post-launch briefings and arrival at the station. Launch coverage begins at 5:45 p.m. Monday – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

You can also watch the pre- and post launch briefing on Sunday and Monday on NASA TV.

What the Antares launch will look like from Fells Point in Baltimore, MD. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
What the Antares launch will look like from Fells Point in Baltimore, MD. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.

The weather prognosis is currently very favorable with a greater than a 90% chance of acceptable weather conditions at launch time.

Watch here for Ken’s onsite reporting direct from NASA Wallops.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about Commercial Space, Orion and NASA Human and Robotic Spaceflight at Ken’s upcoming presentations:

Oct 26/27: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA

What the Antares launch will look like over the Port of Baltimore, MD. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
What the Antares launch will look like over the Port of Baltimore, MD. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
What the Antares launch will look looking south over Heritage Commission in Dover, DE. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
What the Antares launch will look looking south over Heritage Commission in Dover, DE. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
Viewing the launch from looking East from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.  Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
Viewing the launch from looking East from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft blasts off on July 13  2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission and loaded with over 3000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the crew aboard the International Space Station.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft blasts off on July 13, 2014, from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission and loaded with over 3000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the crew aboard the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Cat 4 Hurricane Gonzalo Threatens Bermuda and Delays Antares Launch to Space Station

Hurricane Gonzalo, the first major Atlantic Ocean basin hurricane in three years, has strengthened to a dangerous Category 4 storm, threatening Bermuda and forcing a postponement of the upcoming launch of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket to the space station from the Virginia shore to no earlier than Oct. 27.

A hurricane warning is in effect for the entire island of Bermuda.

NASA and Orbital Sciences had no choice but to delay the Antares blastoff from Oct. 24 to no earlier than Oct. 27 because Bermuda is home to an “essential tracking site” that must be operational to ensure public safety in case of a launch emergency situation.

Antares had been slated for an early evening liftoff with the Cygnus cargo carrier on the Orb-3 mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA and Orbital issued the following statement:

“Due to the impending arrival of Hurricane Gonzalo on the island of Bermuda, where an essential tracking site used to ensure public safety during Antares launches is located, the previously announced “no earlier than” (NET) launch date of October 24 for the Orb-3 CRS mission to the International Space Station for NASA is no longer feasible.”

Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft prior to blast off on July 13  2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission bound for the International Space Station.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft prior to blast off on July 13 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission bound for the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The powerful Gonzalo is currently expected to make a direct hit on Bermuda on Friday afternoon, Oct. 17. It’s packing devastating maximum sustained winds exceeding 145 mph (225 kph).

NASA and NOAA satellites including the Terra, Aqua and GOES-East satellites are providing continuous coverage of Hurricane Gonzalo as it moves toward Bermuda, according to a NASA update today.

The ISS-RapidScat payload tracking ocean winds, that was just attached to the exterior of the ISS, is also designed to help with hurricane monitoring and forecasting.

Tropical storm force winds and 20 to 30 foot wave heights are expected to impact Bermuda throughout Friday and continue through Saturday and into Sunday.

“The National Hurricane Center expects hurricane-force winds, and rainfall totals of 3 to 6 inches in Bermuda. A storm surge with coastal flooding can be expected in Bermuda, with large and destructive waves along the coast. In addition, life-threatening surf and riptide conditions are likely in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Bahamas. Those dangerous conditions are expected along the U.S. East Coast and Bermuda today, Oct. 16,” according to NASA.

On Oct. 15 at 15:30 UTC (11:30 a.m. EDT) NASA's Terra satellite captured this image of Hurricane Gonzalo in the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team
On Oct. 15 at 15:30 UTC (11:30 a.m. EDT) NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image of Hurricane Gonzalo in the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

After the hurricane passes, a team will be sent to assess the impact of the storm on Bermuda and the tracking station. Further delays are possible if Bermuda’s essential infrastructure systems are damaged, such as power, transportation and communications.

The Antares/Cygnus rocket and cargo ship launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility along the eastrn shore of Virginia.

Liftoff is currently target for October 27 at 6:44 p.m. (EDT). The rendezvous and berthing of Cygnus with the ISS remains on November 2, with grapple of the spacecraft by the station’s robotic arm at approximately 4:58 a.m. (EST), according to a NASA update.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer