A History of Launch Failures: “Not Because They are Easy, but Because They are Hard”

Over the 50-plus years since President John F. Kennedy’s Rice University speech, spaceflight has proven to be hard. It doesn’t take much to wreck a good day to fly.

Befitting a Halloween story, rocket launches, orbital insertions, and landings are what make for sleepless nights. These make-or-break events of space missions can be things that go bump in the night: sometimes you get second chances and sometimes not. Here’s a look at some of the past mission failures that occurred at launch. Consider this a first installment in an ongoing series of articles – “Not Because They Are Easy.”

A still image from one of several videos of the ill-fated Antares launch of October 28, 2014, taken by engineers at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Wallops, VA. (Credit: NASA)
A still image from one of several videos of the ill-fated Antares launch of October 28, 2014, taken by engineers at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Wallops, VA. (Credit: NASA)

The evening of October 28, 2014, was another of those hard moments in the quest to explore and expand humanity’s presence in space. Ten years ago, Orbital Sciences Corporation sought an engine to fit performance requirements for a new launch vehicle. Their choice was a Soviet-era liquid fuel engine, one considered cost-effective, meeting requirements, and proving good margins for performance and safety. The failure of the Antares rocket this week could be due to a flaw in the AJ-26 or it could be from a myriad of other rocket parts. Was it decisions inside NASA that cancelled or delayed engine development programs and led OSC and Lockheed-Martin to choose “made in Russia” rather than America?

Here are other unmanned launch failures of the past 25 years:

Falcon 1, Flight 2, March 21, 2007. Fairings are hard. There are fairings that surround the upper stage engines and a fairing covering payloads.  Fairings must not only separate but also not cause collateral damage. The second flight of the Falcon 1 is an example of a 1st stage separation and fairing that swiped the second stage nozzle. Later, overcompensation by the control system traceable to the staging led to loss of attitude control; however, the launch achieved most of its goals and the mission was considered a success. (View: 3:35)

Proton M Launch, Baikonur Aerodrome, July 2, 2013. The Proton M is the Russian Space program’s workhorse for unmanned payloads. On this day, the Navigation, Guidance, and Control System failed moments after launch. Angular velocity sensors of the guidance control system were installed backwards. Fortunately, the Proton M veered away from its launch pad sparing it damage.

Ariane V Maiden Flight, June 4, 1996. The Ariane V was carrying an ambitious ESA mission called Cluster – a set of four satellites to fly in tetrahedral formation to study dynamic phenomena in the Earth’s magnetosphere. The ESA launch vehicle reused flight software from the successful Ariane IV. Due to differences in the flight path of the Ariane V, data processing led to a data overflow – a 64 floating point variable overflowing a 16 bit integer. The fault remained undetected and flight control reacted in error. The vehicle veered off-course, the structure was stressed and disintegrated 37 seconds into flight. Fallout from the explosion caused scientists and engineers to don protective gas masks. (View: 0:50)

Delta II, January 17, 1997. The Delta II is one of the most successful rockets in the history of space flight, but not on this day. Varied configurations change up the number of solid rocket motors strapped to the first stage. The US Air Force satellite GPS IIR-1 was to be lifted to Earth orbit, but a Castor 4A solid rocket booster failed seconds after launch. A hairline fracture in the rocket casing was the fault. Both unspent liquid and solid fuel rained down on the Cape, destroying launch equipment, buildings, and even parked automobiles. This is one of the most well documented launch failures in history.

Compilation of Early Launch Failures. Beginning with several of the early failures of Von Braun’s V2, this video compiles many failures over a 70 year period. The early US space program endured multiple launch failures as they worked at a breakneck speed to catch up with the Soviets after Sputnik. NASA did not yet exist. The Air Force and Army had competing designs, and it was the Army with the German rocket scientists, including Von Braun, that launched the Juno 1 rocket carrying Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958.

One must always realize that while spectacular to launch viewers, a rocket launch has involved years of development, lessons learned, and multiple revisions. The payloads carried involve many hundreds of thousands of work-hours. Launch vehicle and payloads become quite personal. NASA and ESA have offered grief counseling to their engineers after failures.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Kennedy’s Rice University Speech, September 12, 1962

It’s Hurricane Season and NASA is Ready Like Never Before

What’s in the cards weather-wise for the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season? Although the start of astronomical summer for the northern hemisphere is still over a week away on June 21st, meteorological summer has already begun and with it, hurricane season, which runs from June 1st to November 30th.

This year, NASA is deploying its latest weapons in its hurricane-hunting arsenal to study tropical storms like never before, including two new Earth observing satellites and two uncrewed Global Hawk aircraft.

The Global Hawk flights are set to begin on August 26th from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility based along the Virginia coast and run through September 29th. This coincides with the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, when storm activity should be in full swing. The campaign is part of NASA’s airborne Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel mission, also known as HS3.

“This year, we’re going full-force into tropical cyclone research,” stated HS3 mission principal investigator Scott Braun in a recent press release from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight center headquartered at Greenbelt, Maryland. “We’ll have two Global Hawks equipped with six instruments. The new NASA-JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory will be providing much higher quality data than previously available on rain structure in tropical cyclones in all ocean basins. The surface-wind monitoring ISS-RapidScat instrument to be launched to the International Space Station this season will provide valuable information on surface winds and storms.”

One of the key mysteries that the HS3 program is targeting is the role that a dry hot air phenomenon known as the Saharan Air Layer or SAL plays in hurricane formation and subsequent intensification. Some studies suggest the SAL feeds and triggers hurricane formation off of the north African coast —a mainstream view held by many meteorologists — while other studies imply that it may actually suppress it. HS3 will also give researchers the enhanced capability to monitor and track the formation of thunderstorms near the core of hurricanes and tropical storms and follow their progression.

To accomplish this, the HS3 Global Hawk aircraft will deploy devices that measure humidity, temperature and wind speeds known as dropsondes. All of the dropsondes to be deployed by NASA in the 2014 season are managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Global Hawk aircraft are ideal for hurricane tracking and hunting because they can stay aloft for up to 26 hours and fly at altitudes of over 18,000 metres. HS3 mission control for the Global Hawks is based out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

The first Global Hawk will provide data on the storm’s environment. The gear it uses to accomplish this will include the Cloud Physics Lidar (CPL), the Advanced Vertical Atmospheric Profiling System (AVAPS), and the Scanning High-resolution Interferometer Sounder (S-HIS).

Global Hawk number two will analyze the core storm regions to gauge temperature, humidity, surface winds and precipitation. It will use an array of instruments to accomplish this, including the High-Altitude Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuit Sounding Radiometer (HAMSR), the Hurricane Imaging Radiometer (HIRAD), and Doppler Radar.

The dramatic night launch of the GPM satellite from Tanegashima, Japan. Credit: NASA/JAXA
The dramatic night launch of the GPM satellite from Tanegashima, Japan. Credit: NASA/JAXA

In orbit, the Global Precipitation Mission (GPM) will continue with the legacy of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) and follow hurricanes through all phases of formation and decay. A joint NASA/JAXA mission, GPM was launched atop an H-IIA rocket earlier this year on February 27th from Tanegashima Space Center located on the southern tip of Kyushu Island in Japan. Of particular interest to GPM researchers is the formation of deep thunderstorms known as hot towers near the hurricane eyewall. GPM is located in an 65° degree inclination in low Earth orbit and will be able to track hurricanes and study hot tower formation as they move out of the tropics.

Newsflash- no sooner than we finished this article than we noticed that a rocket booster associated with the GPM launch is set to reenter soon on June 17th.

A diagram of RapidScat's future home on the ISS. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Spaceflight Center.
A diagram of RapidScat’s future home on the ISS. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Spaceflight Center.

And finally, RapidScat is set to head to the International Space Station later this year. Set to be mounted on the exterior of the Columbus module of the ISS, RapidScat will be an invaluable tool for monitoring ocean surface winds and is a cost effective replacement for the QuickScat satellite that ceased operation in 2009. RapidScat is set to launch on a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket as part of the CRS-4 Dragon resupply mission slated for sometime this August.

These assets will give NASA the ability to study hurricanes that form during the 2014 season like never before. And speaking of the ISS, the live camera that now broadcasts HD images 24 hours a day will make for some interesting views of hurricanes online from space.

And what’s on tap for the 2014 Atlantic season? Well, forecast models out of Colorado State University suggest that an anomalous cooling early on in the Atlantic will lead to fewer than usual named storms, with perhaps only 9, as opposed to the usual average number of 12. Of these, perhaps 1-2 will reach category 3 or higher, as opposed to the average number of 3. A leading factor in this weakened trend is the possibility of a moderate to strong El Nino event earlier this year. Keep in mind through, that it only takes one destructive hurricane to wreak havoc, and these still can and do occur, even on off years.

Whatever the case, NASA and the NOAA will have all their tools at their disposal ready to study these powerful storms as the season rolls on.

Rise of the PhoneSats

Satellites can now fit in the palm of your hand.

Known as Cubesats, several of these tiny but cost-effective payloads use off-the-shelf technology that you may currently carry in your pocket. In fact, engineers have put out a call for app designers to write programs for these tiny micro-satellites. Four of this new breed of satellites are part of the Antares A-One mission and another four are slated to launch tomorrow atop a Soyuz rocket from Plesetsk along with the Bion M-1 payload.

Yesterday’s launch of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket was scrubbed with minutes to go due to the premature retraction of an umbilical. Current plans call for a 48 hour turnaround with a new launch window opening Friday night on April 19th at 5:00 PM EDT/ 21:00 UT.

Cubesats are nothing new. As technology becomes miniaturized, so have the satellites that they’re contained in. Cubesats have even been deployed from the International Space Station.

The primary goal of the Antares A-One mission is to deploy a test mass into low Earth Orbit that simulates the Cygnus spacecraft. If all goes well, Cygnus is set to make its first flight to the ISS this summer.

But also onboard are the three unique payloads; the PhoneSat-1a, 1b & 1c cubesats and the Dove 1 cubesat.

As the name implies, the PhoneSat series of satellites are each constructed around a Nexus Smartphone and operate using Google’s very own Android operating system. The mission serves as NASA’s test bed for the concept. The phone system will monitor the orientation of the satellites. The PhoneSats will also use their off-the-shelf built-in cameras to take pictures of the Earth from orbit.

A separate watchdog circuit will reboot the phones if necessary. The PhoneSats are expected to last about a week in orbit until their batteries die. One of the PhoneSats is equipped with solar panels to test rechargeable technology for the platform.

Two of the nano satellites are built around a Samsung Nexus S and the other around a HTC Nexus Smartphone. The satellites will also use the SD card for info storage plus the 3-axis magnetometer and accelerometer incorporated into the phones for measurements and orientation.

A PhoneSat 1.0 during a balloon test flight. (Credit: NASA).
A PhoneSat 1.0 during a balloon test flight. (Credit: NASA).

Dove-1 will test a similar technology. It is built around a low-cost bus using off-the-shelf components. Each of the three PhoneSats cost less than $3,500 dollars U.S. to build.

Amateur radio operators will also be able to monitor the satellites as well. The PhoneSats will transmit at 437.425 MHz. Information will also available to track them in real time on the web once they’re deployed.

The two PhoneSat 1.0 satellites are dubbed Graham and Bell and will transmit every 28 and 30 seconds, and the one PhoneSat 2.0 satellite is named Alexandre and will transmit every 25 seconds.

The PhoneSat 2.0 series will also employ magnets that interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. A future application of this could include use of a PhoneSat for a possible heliophysics mission.

Although the Antares A-One mission is aiming to place the Cygnus test mass and the Cubesats in an inclination of 51.6° degrees similar to the ISS, it will not be following the ISS in its orbit and won’t present a hazard to the station.

The goal of NASA’s PhoneSat team based out of the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field California is to “release early and often.” Missions like Antares A-One present a unique opportunity for the teams to get “piggyback payloads” into orbit. To this end, NASA’s Cubesat Launch Initiative (CSLI) issues periodic calls for teams across the nation to make proposals and build tiny satellites.

Basic dimensions of a cubesat are 10x10x14 centimetres (for comparison, a CD jewel case is about 14×12 cm) and must weigh less than 1.33 kilograms for 1U, 2U & 3U variants. Up to 14kg is allowed for 6U models. Cubesats are deployed from a Poly-Picosatellite Deployer, or P-Pod.

Another set of cubesats is also slated to launch tomorrow from Plesetsk. The primary payload of the mission is deployment of the Bion M-1 biological research satellite. Bion M-1 will carry an assortment of organisms including lizards, mice and snails for a one month mission to study the effects of a long duration spaceflight on micro-organisms.

The Bion M-1 mission will also deploy the AIST microsatellite built by students of Samara Aerospace University, & BeeSats 2 & 3 provided by the Technical University of Berlin. A twin of the Dove-1 satellite launching on Antares named Dove-2 is also onboard.

One of the micro-satellites named OSSI-1 is of particular interest to backyard satellite trackers. Part of the Open Source Satellite Initiative, OSSI-1 was developed by radio amateur and artist Hojun Song. In addition to a Morse Code beacon, OSSI-1 will also contain a 44 watt optical LED beacon that will periodically be visible to observers on Earth.

Another similar project, FITSAT-1, has been tracked and imaged by observers in recent months. Follow the AmSat-UK website for predictions and visibility prospects of OSSI-1 after launch and deployment. FITSAT-1 has been visible with binoculars only, but OSSI-1 may just be visible to the unaided eye during shadow passes while it’s operational.

It will be interesting to watch these “home-brewed” projects take to orbit. The price tag and the technology is definitely within reach of a sufficiently motivated basement tinker or student team with an idea. Hey, how about the world’s first free-flying “Amateur Space Telescope?” Just throwing that out there!


How to Spot the Antares Launch from NASA Wallops on Wednesday

A space launch marking a new era is departing from the Virginia coast this Wednesday evening, and if you live anywhere along a wide area of the US Eastern seaboard, you’ll have a great opportunity to witness the launch with your own eyes. Here’s all the information you’ll need to see it, plus some tips for capturing it with your camera.

Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket will launch from Pad 0A at NASA’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport based on Wallops Island, Virginia. This will mark not only the first launch of Antares, but the first orbital launch of a liquid-fueled rocket from Wallops. The launch window runs from 5:00 to 8:00 PM EDT (21:00-24:00 UT).

There were some concerns when a technical anomaly shutdown a “Wet Dress Rehearsal” test this weekend at T-16 minutes, but Orbital Sciences has stated that the problems have been resolved and the launch is pressing ahead as planned.

Space shots are a familiar sight to the residents of the Florida Space Coast, but will provide a unique show for residents of the U.S. central Atlantic region. The launch of Antares from Wallops will be visible for hundreds of miles and be over 10° above the horizon for an arc spanning from Wilmington, North Carolina to Washington D.C. and north to the New York City tri-state area as it heads off to the southeast. Antares is a two stage rocket with a 1st stage liquid fueled engine and a solid-fueled 2nd stage. The primary mission for Wednesday’s Antares A-One flight will be to demonstrate the ability for the Antares rocket to place a payload into orbit. If all goes well, Orbital Sciences will join SpaceX this summer in the select club of private companies with the ability provide cargo delivery access to the International Space Station in Low Earth Orbit.

Antares heads to orbit. Artist's concept. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corperation).
Antares heads to orbit. Artist’s concept. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation).

Antares will deploy a dummy mass simulating the Cygnus module. Also onboard are the Phonesat-1a, -1b, and -1c micro-cubesats and the Dove 1 satellite.

Be sure to watch for the launch of Antares if you live in the region. Find a spot with a low uncluttered eastern horizon and watch from an elevated rooftop or hilltop location if possible. I live a hundred miles west of Cape Canaveral and I’ve followed launches all the way through Main Engine Cutoff and first stage separation with binoculars.

Be sure to also follow the launch broadcast live for any last minute delays via NASA TV or Universe Today will have a live feed as well. Antares is aiming to put the Cygnus test mass in a 250 x 300 kilometre orbit with a 51.6° inclination. This is similar to what will be necessary to head to the ISS, but this week’s launch will not be trailing the ISS in its path. This also means that the launch window can be extended over three hours rather than having to be instantaneous.

If the launch goes at the beginning of the window, the local sun angle over the launch facility will be 30° to the west. Sunset at Wallops on the evening of April 17th occurs at 7:41PM EDT, meaning we could be in for a photogenic dusk launch of Antares if it stretches to the end of the target window.

And speaking of which, a pre-sunset launch means short daytime exposure settings for photography. Be prepared to switch over for dusk conditions if the launch extends into the end of the window. Conditions during twilight can change almost moment-to-moment. One of the most memorable launches we witnessed was the pre-dawn liftoff of STS-131 on April 5th, 2010:

The predawn launch of STS-131 as seen from 100 miles west. (Photo by author).
The predawn launch of STS-131 as seen from 100 miles west. (Photo by author).

Once in orbit, the launch of Antares should generate four visible objects; the test mass payload, the two clam-shell fairings, and the stage two booster. This configuration is similar to a Falcon 9/Dragon launch, minus the solar panel covers. These objects should be visible to the naked eye at magnitudes +3 to +5. The cubesat payloads are tiny and below the threshold of naked eye visibility.

Preliminary visibility for the objects will favor latitudes 0-30° north at dusk to 10-40° at dawn. Keep in mind these predictions could change as the launch window evolves. The next NORAD tracking ID in the queue is 2013-015A. Yesterday’s launch of Anik G1 from Baikonur was just cataloged today as 2013-014A plus associated hardware. The weather is forecast to be 45% “go” for tomorrow’s launch. In the event of a scrub, the next launch window for Antares is April 18-21st.

First orbit of the Cygnus test mass; shadow orientation of the Earth assumes a nominal launch at 22:00UT on April 17th. (Created by the author using Orbitron. TLEs courtesy of (name)
First orbit of the Cygnus test mass; shadow orientation of the Earth assumes a nominal launch at 22:00 UT on April 17th. (Created by the author using Orbitron. Two-Line Elements courtesy of Henry Hallam).

It’ll be exciting to follow this first flight of Antares and its first scheduled mission to the International Space Station this summer. Also watch for the first ever lunar mission to depart Wallops on August 12 with the launch of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE).

Finally, if you’ve got a pass of the International Space Station this week, keep an eye out for Progress M-17M currently about 10 minutes ahead of the station in its orbit. The unmanned Progress vehicle just undocked yesterday from the station and will be conducting a series of experiments monitoring the interactions of its thrusters with the ionosphere before burning up on reentry over the South Pacific on April 21st.

A pass of the ISS over UK tonite (April 16th) with Progress leading at 20:30UT. (Created by the author in Orbitron).
A pass of the ISS over UK tonite (April 16th) with Progress leading at 20:30UT. (Created by the author in Orbitron).

The ISS and more can be tracked using Heavens-Above. Also, we’ll be tweeting all of the updates and orbital action as it evolves as @Astroguyz. Let us know of those launch sightings both near and far. It’ll be interesting to see what, if any, impact launches visible to a large portion of the U.S. population will have on the public’s perception of spaceflight. Be sure to look up tomorrow night!