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[WATCH] Unmanned rocket explodes after lift-off

NASA-sponsored rocket explodes moments after lift-off in Virginia

29 October 2014, 7:19am
The explosion of the Antares rocket was captured live
The explosion of the Antares rocket was captured live
Skip to 2:49 to watch countdown and explosion

An unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded moments after lift-off 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 accident at Orbital Sciences Corp.’s launch complex at Wallops Island was sure to draw criticism over the space agency’s growing reliance on private U.S. companies in this post-shuttle effort.

NASA pays billions of dollars to Orbital Sciences and the SpaceX company to make station deliveries, and it’s counting on SpaceX and Boeing to start flying U.S. astronauts to the orbiting lab as early as 2017.

NASA spokesman Rob Navias said there was nothing on the lost flight that was urgently needed by the six people living on the space station.

Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket blew up over the launch complex, just six seconds after the liftoff. The company said everyone at the site had been accounted for, and the damage appeared to be limited to the facilities.

Flames could be seen shooting into the sky as the sun set. There was no hint of any trouble until the rocket exploded. 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.

NASA TV online showed footage of the Antares rocket, which exploded shortly after launch.

“We will understand what happened — hopefully soon — and we’ll get things back on track,” Orbital Sciences’ executive vice president Frank Culbertson told his team an hour after the failure.

“We’ve all seen this happen in our business before, and we’ve all seen the teams recover from this, and we will do the same.”

The investigation will include evaluating debris from around the launch pad, he told reporters. He said a team will look at data to try to determine exactly where the problem started and see if they can determine a sequence of events.

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.

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

President Barack Obama has long championed this commercial effort, urging that NASA focus its human spaceflight effort less on nearby orbit and more on destinations like asteroids and Mars. He was in Wisconsin for a campaign rally Tuesday evening and was kept abreast of the accident and its developments.

The explosion also hit Orbital Science’s stock, which fell more than 15 percent in after-hours trading.