For the NASA press corps, specifically the photojournalists responsible for capturing suicidal up-close images at liftoff, camera setups for the recent launch attempt of an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket on the Orb-3 mission was as usual, but the outcome was anything but. Everyone knows that a rocket can explode, and although the odds are incredibly small we understand the risks when we set up our launch pad cameras to document the impressive launches of America’s missions to space. As the old saying goes: Spaceflight is not routine, and the still and video imagery presented in this article tonight highlight that fact better than any words alone could ever describe.
As outlined in our post-launch story, the 133-foot-tall Antares exploded spectacularly just six seconds after liftoff, which occurred at 6:22 p.m. EDT from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va. A gorgeous sunset, near-perfect weather conditions, and an exceptionally smooth countdown might have seemed the ideal prelude for a successful flight of the company’s third dedicated Cygnus cargo mission to the ISS, but that success was shattered—and Antares indefinitely grounded—as Orbital seeks to understand what caused its largest home-grown cryogenic rocket to vanish in a ball of fire.
In the aftermath of the catastrophic Antares explosion, Orbital Sciences established an independent Accident Investigation Board (AIB), operating under oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Spaceflight Transportation, to begin work immediately to figure out what exactly caused the loss of the company’s fourth Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission to the ISS. The flight operated under a $1.9 billion CRS contract with NASA, signed in December 2008, which requires the Dulles, Va.-based company to stage eight dedicated Cygnus flights by 2016 to deliver a total of 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) of payloads and other items to the ISS.
Normally, launch photojournalists retrieve their gear within 1-3 hours after liftoff, once the launch complex is deemed safe; however, in the case of Orb-3 doing so was obviously not an option. Immediately after the accident the launch complex was sealed off, which is a call made by Range Safety and Orbital Sciences’ procedure, at which point an Incident Response Team (IRT) went out to secure all data, including impounding of any imagery that could be relevant in the accident investigation. This procedure is standard operation in the aftermath of an accident, and for that reason it was not until earlier this week that the press photography team covering the launch finally received some (but not all) of the launch pad footage that was impounded for the investigation.
“The initial liftoff looked flawless. Then, suddenly, the exhaust turned bright yellow and became far brighter than usual. That’s when we knew things were about to get bad,” said colleague Elliot Severn, a launch photojournalist who covered the mission for our partner organizations Zero-G News and StarTalk Radio. “The vehicle seemed to hang in the air and started to burn, it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It fell in a pillar of fire and exploded on impact, and we could feel the heat on our face from 1.5 miles away. Seconds later the shockwave hit, and we all ran for the buses to evacuate. We had little hope of any cameras surviving.”
WATCH: AmericaSpace and Zero-G News video compilation of four cameras surrounding the launch pad to capture liftoff. The video runs through each at full speed before slowing down to give viewers a slow motion replay of the explosion. One of the cameras was right in the middle of the fireball, with chunks of broken rocket showering down around. CREDITS: Mike Barrett / Jeff Seibert / Matthew Travis / Elliot Severn / Peter Greenwood for www.ZeroGNews.com and www.AmericaSpace.com
But survive they did, all of them, and the footage is nothing short of spectacular.
“After returning home I saw the first aerial surveys of the launch pad, and we could see all of our cameras!” added Severn. “We waited several weeks to get everything back from the Accident Investigation Board, which was very frustrating, but it was well worth the wait.”
“I was totally stunned trying to comprehend what was happening because it was all so wrong, it seemed simultaneously to last for hours and mere moments,” said colleague Ken Kremer, who was covering the launch for Universe Today and AmericaSpace. “I knew as a scientist and journalist that I was watching a mounting disaster unfold before my eyes. I wasn’t scared – but definitely stunned beyond description, and I wondered for a moment if some dangerous debris was hurtling towards us. Thankfully, everyone got out safe and there were no injuries due to the excellent effort by our NASA escorts, who are trained for exactly these types of unexpected circumstances. Thank God no one was on board.”
Within 24 hours of the explosion, the IRT had already completed their initial assessment at the launch site and surrounding area, giving investigators their first real look at the damage caused to property, infrastructure, and the local environment, but it will likely be 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.
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 was littered with debris.
Environmental assessments have been conducted as well, and are ongoing, with the preliminary observations 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 have been collected from the incident area and control sites for comparative analysis.
Investigators also met with a group of state and local officials during the initial assessment, 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 both reported no obvious signs of water pollution, such as oil sheens, and no obvious impacts to fish or wildlife resources have been observed. Investigators will continue to monitor and assess the impact of the explosion to the environment over the coming weeks and months.
Preliminary reviews of telemetry and video data conducted by the AIB, as well as collection and examination of debris from the accident, points to a probable turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage one main engines the Antares employs. In light of this, Orbital stated earlier this month that they plan to discontinue use of the engines all together, with a new engine being used by Antares for its thunderous ride to space going into service in 2016. In the meantime, however, Orbital will need to fly their Cygnus on another rocket, one which has yet to be announced, although there are not many options to choose from.
Through process of elimination it’s generally assumed that Orbital will likely employ the SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., for their next two CRS missions Orb-4 and Orb-5 while the work to get Antares flying again proceeds over the next one or two years. The Falcon-9 is already flying cargo runs to the ISS with the SpaceX Dragon capsule for NASA under their own CRS contract, and the alternative, ULA’s Atlas-V, has never flown to ISS (ULA was never in competition for a CRS NASA contract in the first place). Not only that, but ULA’s Atlas-V would be more expensive.
“Orbital is taking decisive action to fulfill our commitments to NASA in support of safe and productive operations of the Space Station,” stated Orbital in a statement released on Nov. 5, 2014. “While the Antares failure was very disappointing to all of us, the company is already implementing a contingency plan to overcome this setback. We intend to move forward safely but also expeditiously to put our CRS cargo program back on track and to accelerate the introduction of our upgraded Antares rocket,” said Mr. David W. Thompson, Orbital’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.
As for the remote launch pad imagery we are releasing tonight, the regulars who work the space beat—in the aftermath of everything—made a pact for releasing these images—an agreement among colleagues who have over the years also become good friends who work together to achieve the wanted results.
“Our readers don’t want meaningless competition, nor do they care about it. They want to see and feel the excitement of space exploration, and we’re the vehicles to tell the story,” said Matthew Travis, Managing Editor at Zero-G News and the Executive Director at the Aerospace Research and Engineering Systems Institute. “We’re not THE story and we shouldn’t try to be, and we’re happy that way, happy to tell the story of spaceflight. That’s what matters, it’s not about us, and the only thing that matters is that we do good work, that’s what’s important.”
With that said, three spaceflight news outlets—Universe Today, Zero-G News, and AmericaSpace—have released the images at the same time this evening. Below is our gallery—PHOTOS and VIDEO—from the views captured from the press viewing site and by our fleet of remote cameras surrounding the Antares launch complex when Antares exploded.
Credits: Matthew Travis / Elliot Severn / Peter Greenwood / Mike Barrett / Jeff Seibert / Ken Kremer for Zero-G News, Universe Today, and AmericaSpace. All rights reserved, unauthorized use is strictly prohibited.
BELOW: Additional Video Footage From the Pad
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