We launch resupply missions to the International Space Station so often it’s almost routine enough that we’ve become complacent. But even routine rocket science is still rocket science.
This evening’s launch from the Wallops Island launch site in Virginia was the Orbital Sciences Corporations‘ third official cargo mission to the International Space Station. The unmanned Antares rocket was carrying one of Orbital’s unmanned Cygnus spacecraft, and was loaded with 5,000 pounds of food, water, experiments, and gear to astronauts currently living on abroad the station. It was part of $1.9 billion contract with NASA, one that has the company delivering eight resupply missions to the station.
The mishap occurred just after the rocket launched at 6:22 p.m. EST. And because the launch was being broadcast live the world got to see the explosion in real time.
We don’t know what went wrong yet (all on-site personnel are thankfully accounted for). Things were looking great until the rocket exploded, and it’s going to be a while before Orbital and NASA have had a chance to go through all the data and determine exactly what happened.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Orbital has lost a mission to a launch vehicle failure. On March 4, 2011, one of Orbital’s Taurus XL launch vehicles failed to deliver NASA’s Glory spacecraft into orbit. The nose cone failed to separate and open, and the spacecraft burned up when it fell back to Earth. Glory was intended to collect data about aerosols in the Earth’s atmosphere as well as data on solar irradiance.
For now, the Orbital team is in a contingency phase and things have sort of frozen at Wallops.
Orbital has stopped recording telemetry and is now gathering what data they have from tracking launch operations, data they’ll use in the accident investigation to come. The site around the launchpad has been secured since there is classified cryptographic equipment on the Cygnus spacecraft that needs to be maintained. The National Transportation Safety Board will also be involved in the investigation, though in an advisory capacity only, which means that NASA and Orbital will are able to interview their own personnel.
The rest of the world will have to wait — no one’s allowed to talk to the media for the time being.
NASA is broadcasting an ongoing stream from Wallops and will continue to do so as any updates come in. You can follow along live here.