Launch Failure Doesn't Shake NASA's Faith in Orbital's Antares Rocket

The dramatic destruction of an Orbital Sciences commercial rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station won’t diminish NASA’s commitment to using private companies as space shuttles. “The thing that’s important is that we don’t overreact,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator of human explorations and operations, said late Tuesday at a news conference. “I don’t see this as a problem or a concern for us in the future. It’s just more awareness of what we’re trying to go do and it’s not easy.”

Orbital Sciences said its unmanned Antares rocket suffered a “catastrophic anomaly” less than 20 seconds after launching from NASA’s Wallops Island (Va.) launch center on Tuesday evening. Within seconds after launch, an unusual flare appeared near the bottom of the rocket. Less than 10 seconds later, the launch safety officer sent a command for the rocket to self-destruct. “I can assure you we will find out what went wrong, and we will correct it, and we will fly again,” said Frank Culbertson, an Orbital Sciences vice president and a former NASA astronaut who has worked aboard the space station. The Antares first flew in April 2013. Insurance will cover part of the $200 million loss of the rocket and cargo capsule, Culbertson said.

Shares of Orbital Sciences fell more than 14 percent in early trading Wednesday. The rocket was on its third mission to the space station, carrying nearly 5,000 pounds of supplies (pdf) for the crew, along with science experiments and other equipment for the ISS. The Cygnus cargo craft was supposed to rendezvous with the station on Sunday. NASA officials said the loss of the cargo will not harm the ISS crew, who are adequately supplied. A Russian mission to the ISS is scheduled to launch today, Oct. 29, and a SpaceX flight is set for early December.

For many observers, the flare early in the launch cast suspicion on the Antares’s AJ-26 engines, a Russian model dating to the 1960s that Orbital has renovated for its launches. In May, an AJ-26 being tested at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi suffered a major malfunction; some reports said it had exploded. Each engine is tested several times before a launch, according to Orbital officials, who expressed confidence in the model.

The failure—which Orbital will investigate with help from NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration—is likely to prompt questions about whether NASA is exerting proper oversight of the technology its private-sector partners are using. In September, NASA awarded $6.8 billion in contracts to Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to prepare rival crafts that will ferry ISS crew to and from the space platform.

Under the Obama administration, NASA has endorsed commercial space flight as a financially responsible way to conduct ISS supply and crew-shuttle missions, freeing money for deep-space exploration and a proposed manned mission to Mars by 2025. There’s also a quicker imperative: Since retiring the space shuttle, America has no vehicle for sending astronauts to the ISS and must pay Russia for these rides.

This was the third of Orbital Sciences’ eight resupply missions under its current $1.9 billion contract with NASA. “Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback,” the company said in a statement after the explosion.

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