Seven months after an Antares rocket carrying the doomed Orb-3 mission plummeted onto its launch pad, reconstruction efforts are in full swing in preparation for the rocket’s return to flight. On June 28, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility celebrated its 70th anniversary by holding an open house, giving the public and media an opportunity to tour the launch facilities on Wallops Island. During this event, representatives from NASA and the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority shed some light on their progress toward reestablishing launch capability.
As catastrophic as the accident appeared, the damage to Launch Complex 0A was not as extensive as expected. Antares impacted just feet from the north wall of the flame trench. The reinforced concrete structure protected much of the launch pad from the force of the resulting explosion. Fortunately, the nearby storage tanks on the north side of the pad were also spared in the accident.
In person, the launch complex doesn’t look much different than before, aside from the absence of the lightning masts. However, all around there are subtle reminders of the disaster that took place there. Within the perimeter fence, the front surfaces of structures facing the pad are blackened with char. Around the perimeter, flattened areas of fresh growth are littered with dead, burnt trees. Several small buildings and sheds still have their doors blown off their hinges.
The impact created a roughly 20-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep crater and destroyed the lightning mast on the northeast side of the pad. The massive concrete platform of the lightning mast was thrown into the air, landing on the southeast side of the pad and toppling the adjacent mast. The two remaining lightning masts were badly burned in the fireball and were later removed. Concrete on and around the launch mount suffered stress fractures from the blast and is gradually being repaired or replaced. Antares’ transporter/erector/launcher (TEL) was also damaged and will require a new hydraulic system to raise the launch vehicle.
The 307-foot-tall water tower, which feeds the sound suppression water deluge system, withstood the explosion and was undamaged. Had Antares destroyed the launch mount, the water tower, or the oxygen and kerosene storage tanks, repairs would have taken several years and would have been far more costly.
According to Dale Nash, Executive Director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, “Repairs at the pad are expected to cost somewhere between 13 and 15 million dollars and it’s going to be a three way split between NASA, Orbital ATK, and the state of Virginia.” The repairs will return the launch pad to its original specifications. Future upgrades are planned, which will enable the pad to support taller, heavier configurations of Antares. Multiple local contractors are being used for the reconstruction.
The response to the Orb-3 accident has expedited plans that were already in place for facilities on Wallops Island. One of the adjacent sounding rocket facilities is being relocated farther north after its shelter was destroyed in the explosion. The fire house is also being moved north so that firemen can stand ready during launch operations. The old firehouse between Pad 0A and 0B was already scheduled for demolition.
Orbital ATK will soon take delivery of the new RD-181 engine from NPO Energomash, which will replace the Aerojet AJ-26 that powered the first stage of Antares. In the meantime, preparations are underway in the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) to modify an existing booster core to accept the RD-181. Launch pad renovations are expected to be completed in time for a 29-second static test firing of the new Antares booster by the end of the year. The first launch of the upgraded Antares is on track for next spring.
Orb-4 is currently slated to launch from Florida in December on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. With the recent loss of the SpaceX CRS-7 mission, Orb-4 is likely to be moved earlier in the launch manifest in order to shorten the gap between cargo flights to the International Space Station. At the CRS-7 post-launch press conference, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier stated: “We will work with the United Launch Alliance and Orbital ATK to see when the right time to fly that is. If we can advance from December and the manifest lets us do that, we might want to fly as early as October.” Orbital ATK has reserved two Atlas V launch vehicles that can be used to launch Cygnus until Antares returns to service.
With thanks to our friend Patrick J. Hendrickson / Highcamera Aerial Photographic Services for providing the photo ship to make these aerials possible. Photo Credit: Elliot Severen / AmericaSpace, all rights reserved.
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