NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility Incident Response Team completed their initial assessment of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island today, only 24 hours after the launch of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded just seconds after leaving its seaside launch pad to resupply the International Space Station and its crew Tuesday evening. Today’s assessment gave investigators their first real look at the damage caused to property, infrastructure, and environment, but it will take weeks—and likely even months—before the investigation gives NASA and Orbital Sciences a better understanding of what exactly went wrong and how the catastrophic explosion has impacted the surrounding environment.
“I want to praise the launch team, range safety, all of our emergency responders and those who provided mutual aid and support on a highly-professional response that ensured the safety of our most important resource — our people,” said Bill Wrobel, Wallops director. “In the coming days and weeks ahead, we’ll continue to assess the damage on the island and begin the process of moving forward to restore our space launch capabilities. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will rebound stronger than ever.”
Today’s observations showed a number of support buildings in the immediate area of the launch site suffered broken windows and imploded doors, with a sounding rocket launcher adjacent to the pad and buildings nearest the pad having suffered the most severe damage. Damage to the transporter erector launcher and lightning suppression rods was extensive, two lightning rods were completely leveled in the explosion, and the area is littered with debris.
Environmental assessments are being conducted as well, with the preliminary observations made today showing that the effects of the explosion were largely contained within the southern third of Wallops Island, in the area immediately adjacent to the pad. Wallops’ industrial hygienist collected air samples at the Wallops mainland area, the Highway 175 causeway, and on Chincoteague Island as well, with no hazardous substances having been detected at the sampled locations. Additional air, soil, and water samples will be collected from the incident area as well as at control sites for comparative analysis.
Investigators also met with a group of state and local officials today, including the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Virginia Marine Police, and the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard and Virginia Marine Resources Commission have both reported no obvious signs of water pollution, such as oil sheens, and no obvious impacts to fish or wildlife resources have been seen, although investigators will continue to monitor and assess the impact of the explosion over the coming weeks and months.
“It is far too early to know the details of what happened,” said Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s Executive Vice President and General Manager of its Advanced Programs Group, in a statement released Monday night. “As we begin to gather information, our primary concern lies with the ongoing safety and security of those involved in our response and recovery operations. We will conduct a thorough investigation immediately to determine the cause of this failure and what steps can be taken to avoid a repeat of this incident. As soon as we understand the cause we will begin the necessary work to return to flight to support our customers and the nation’s space program.”
There have been no reports of debris being found on private properties (homes and businesses) located within a few miles nearby, but blown out windows and minor property damage have been reported around the island.
“While NASA is disappointed that Orbital Sciences’ third contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station was not successful, we will continue to move forward toward the next attempt once we fully understand today’s mishap,” said William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, in a statement last night. “The crew of the International Space Station is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies. Orbital has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first two missions to the station earlier this year, and we know they can replicate that success. Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback.”
As outlined by Ben Evans in our post-launch report, within six seconds of leaving the pad the booster burst into flames, showering burning debris across the launch site. Within minutes, the announcement came from officials at MARS that there was “no indication that personnel are in danger, although significant property damage and significant vehicle damage.”
Although ORB-3 was an unmanned mission, unpleasant reminders of the STS-107 disaster were kindled in the clipped exchanges between flight controllers, who were directed to secure their checklists and their handheld notes and to begin the process of locking down all pertinent data which might support the impending investigation. Anything transmitted via their computers will also be scrubbed in the coming hours and days. The presence of classified crypto equipment aboard the ORB-3 Cygnus spacecraft required the area surrounding Pad 0A to be secured, not only as part of the accident investigation, but also in support of security needs. An interim accident investigation team was formed, encompassing representatives of NASA, Orbital, MARS, and launch team personnel, and will be headed by Richard Straka, the Senior Vice President of Orbital’s Launch Systems Group.
Anyone who finds debris or damage to their property in the vicinity of the launch mishap is cautioned to stay away from it and call the Incident Response Team at 757-824-1295.
Check back regularly for updates.