Authorities on Wednesday started investigating what caused an unmanned U.S. supply rocket to explode in a fireball moments after liftoff from a Virginia launch pad, destroying supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station.
The 14-story Antares rocket, built and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp, blasted off from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island at 6:22 p.m. on Tuesday but burst into flames moments later. It was the first disaster since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration turned to private operators to run cargo to the space station.
While no one was hurt in the accident, witnesses said the explosion looked like a "ball of fire" and shook buildings for miles around.
The rocket carried a Cygnus cargo ship with more than 5,000 pounds (2,273 kg) of equipment and supplies for the station, a $100 billion research laboratory owned and operated by 15 nations that orbits about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth.
Investigators will need days to determine where the failure began, said Frank Culbertson, an Orbital executive vice president and mission director, who placed the value of the rocket and cargo ship at $200 million. The exact cause may take longer to ascertain and correcting the problem could take months, he said. Meanwhile, Orbital has grounded the Antares, which previously made four flights, all successful.
Still, the loss of the supply vessel posed no immediate problem for the orbiting station's six-member crew: two from NASA, one from theEuropean Space Agency and three Russians, officials said.
"It’s a great loss when you lose a vehicle like that ... but we press on," NASA space station flight engineer Barry Wilmore said during an in-flight interview on Wednesday. "We’ve got supplies to last us four to six months."
ORBITAL'S NEXT LAUNCH SCHEDULED FOR APRIL
Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences is one of two companies NASA has hired to fly cargo to the station after NASA's space shuttles were retired n 2011. Tuesday's flight was to be the third of eight under the company's $1.9 billion contract with NASA. Its next launch had been slated for April 2015, according to internal NASA schedules.
The second U.S. supply line to the station is run by privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which is preparing its fourth flight under a separate $1.6 billion NASA contract, slated for Dec. 9.
The accident is unlikely to affect the existing contracts but could influence the awarding of follow-up contracts that NASA is currently soliciting.
Russia's Roskosmos space agency said it was ready to help ferry extra U.S. cargo to the space station if NASA requested. The station is overseen by Russia and the United States, whose relations are at a low ebb over the Ukraine crisis.