Last month, Zero-G News had the opportunity to travel to Wallops Flight Facility, VA in order to cover the anticipated launch of an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket to deliver the Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft on a cargo resupply run to the International Space Station. This was to be the fifth launch of the Antares rocket, the previous four successful, and the seventh mission for Orbital and SpaceX under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program. By all expectations, the Orb-3 launch should have been a standard rocket launch, interesting but not a major news story. What happened on October 28 changed all that.
The following is a first-hand account by this reporter about the experience of witnessing, covering and eventually being caught up in the investigation of the launch failure and explosion of the Antares Orb-3 rocket seconds after liftoff. Amazing close-up photos, released only days ago, tell the story of an inferno at Wallops and the sad end to a promising mission.
The countdown was nominal in all regards, unlike the previous day’s “boatergate” incident. Antares lifted off from Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island to begin a beautiful evening launch over the Eastern Shore. Seconds later, a turbopump failed, destroying the north-facing first stage engine, which caused a loss of thrust and the rocket to fall back to Earth. Seeing the problem the Wallops Range Safety Officer detonated the Flight Termination System explosive charge so as to keep the rocket from veering out of the protected “hazard” zone. Seconds later, Antares smashed back on its own launch complex, missing the concrete launch pad by only six feet, and erupted into a massive ball of flame and debris and sent a shock wave rumbling for miles around the area.
Immediately after the explosion, safety and security personnel at Wallops and the Range Safety Office sealed off the launch complex to wait for the resulting ground fires to burn out. For almost two days, nobody was permitted entry while hazards were cleared and the area deemed safe. At that point, the Incident Response Team swung into action. They began searching for debris, particularly the ill-fated Aerojet AJ-26 engine, and collected for impound every data collection and telemetry recorder at the launch site.
Imagery qualifies as data. As part of the standard procedures following a launch mishap, all cameras – those owned by Orbital, NASA as well as the media – were impounded so that the newly constituted Accident Investigation Board (AIB) could sift through the treasure-trove of information and save what is useful in determining the cause of the failure and fate of the failed components.
The AIB was established by Orbital, but operates independently of the corporate hierarchy – former NASA Shuttle chief Wayne Hale is a member – and functions under the oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (ast.faa.gov). AST is the agency that issued the launch license for Orb-3 and also the spaceport operator’s license for MARS.
In short, outside media photographers had their (our) cameras and imagery impounded for the investigation. Impoundment is not the same as confiscation as AIB did not take ownership and was not permitted to modify, delete or permanently withhold any of the photographic equipment or imagery. A little thing called the First Amendment (which was cited by some at Wallops) protects the media even in the Internet Age.
The result of all this was a two-week wait for the return of our photos. In fact, we are STILL awaiting return of several SD cards which are currently in transit (stay tuned for Part 2 of this photo and video collection!). The media also did something perhaps unprecedented during this time at the suggestion of this story’s author.
We self-embargoed ourselves from publishing. Although we have been free to publish anything that was returned to us, we decided to wait until each member of the group of remote photographers had material in hand to publish on their respective outlets. At NO TIME did either Wallops, Orbital or AIB request or demand that we not publish or wait.
This wasn’t difficult to accomplish. We are all personal friends, especially the five of us who had our gear at the launch complex, and have mutual respect. Co-operation during an important event seemed more important than competition.
And so, after everything that occurred, here is the work of Matthew Travis, Alex Polimeni, Elliot Severn, Ken Kremer and our colleague Charles Twine. Contributing to Zero-G News (ZeroGNews.com), AmericaSpace (AmericaSpace.com), Universe Today (UniverseToday.com) with the much-appreciated support from Jeff Seibert as well as Mike Barrett from Wired4Space (wired4space.com).
I would like to add my personal gratitude to the NASA Wallops Flight Facility Public Affairs Office and empployees. Before launch, they were gracious, accessible and accommodating hosts who welcomed the media and public. After the mishap, they handled the immediate aftermath with professionalism and deal with a situation that was a first-time experience for the spaceport and media alike. Everyone I have spoken with is looking forward to going back for return to flight hopefully in the not too distant future.
We hope that readers find the photos and video that we worked diligently to capture and ever patiently to receive to be exciting, just a bit frightening and a hard-earned reminder that nothing in spaceflight is “routine”, despite some people’s statement otherwise, and that rocket science is still difficult and impossible to perfect.
~ Matthew Travis