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An unmanned Antares rocket exploded seconds after liftoff from a commercial launch pad on Virginia’s eastern seaboard on Tuesday. This is the first accident since NASA turned to private operators to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.
Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft had been set to launch at 6:22 p.m. ET from the Wallops Flight Facility along the Atlantic Ocean, carrying roughly 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments to the International Space Station, but unfortunately it exploded about six seconds after launch.
Both the rocket and spacecraft, which together cost more than $200 million, according to Frank Culbertson, the general manager of Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group, are gone. And there’s obvious damage beyond that, including to the launchpad, though the night skies made it hard to immediately gauge how much. Fortunately no one was injured.
NASA said the space station and its six-person crew would be fine despite the loss of supplies, including more than 1,300 pounds of food, 1,600 pounds of science investigations and some spare parts and spacewalking equipment. “We’re in good shape from a consumables supplies standpoint,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of human spaceflight programs at NASA headquarters, during a press conference late Tuesday.
NASA won’t directly restock them, having relied on private companies to do so since the end of its space shuttle program. That includes Virginia-based Orbital, which had its first of eight planned ISS launches in January out of the Wallops facility as part of its $1.9 billion contract with NASA.
The Orbital rocket had been set to go up Monday, only to be scrubbed “because of a boat down range in the trajectory Antares would have flown had it lifted off,” according to NASA. Coast Guard spokesman David Weydert said the boat that triggered the postponement was 40 miles offshore. Tuesday, by contrast, seemed perfect. Just before liftoff, NASA reported “100% favorable” weather and “no technical concerns with the rocket or spacecraft being worked.”
If Orbital can’t resupply the space station, others will. On Wednesday, for instance, a Russian Soyuz resupply spacecraft stocked with cargo and crew supplies is set to launch from Kazakhstan. SpaceX, another private company, plans its fifth mission in December, including more supplies and a laser instrument to measure pollution, dust and other aspects of the atmosphere.