A spectacular explosion marks the first failure of NASA’s commercial rocket program

Image: Reuters/NASA
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An Antares rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station exploded shortly after launching tonight, in the first failure of a commercial space mission hired by the US space agency, NASA.

The $200 million rocket, carrying supplies and science experiments to the ISS, exploded just seconds after lifting off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, with no reported injuries. Orbital Sciences executive vice president Frank Culbertson told reporters: “We will fly again.”

The cause of the malfunction is unknown; Culbertson, a former astronaut, says Orbital Sciences investigators will investigate the cause of what the company described as a “catastrophic failure.” Just yesterday, the launch was delayed at the last moment because a sailboat was too close to the launch pad.

The rocket carried a Cygnus spacecraft, meant to transport cargo including pea plants, a Kickstarter-funded satellite from the people who want to mine asteroids, a flock of 26 imaging satellites from Planet Labs, and 617 kg of food. NASA officials said that the crew of the ISS is in no danger of running out of supplies, and that another re-supply mission is scheduled for as soon as December. Rocket payloads are typically insured and NASA officials stressed that failures are planned for.

This is the fifth time the Antares rocket has been launched, and its first failure. The rocket was developed by Orbital Sciences for NASA, as part of effort to transfer more of the agency’s low earth orbit responsibilities to the private sector. SpaceX, another participant in this program, holds the other contract to carry ISS supplies; its Falcon 9 rocket has launched 13 times without failure. United Launch Alliance, the leading US satellite launch provider, has launched more than 80 times without failure.

Nonetheless, rocketry is a tricky business, and NASA and Orbital Sciences urged observers—especially US lawmakers—not to over-react to the accident.

The initial spotlight of the investigation will fall on the rocket’s engines, one of which failed during test in May. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk criticized Orbital’s rockets in 2012, saying: ”their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke. It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s—I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like packed away in Siberia somewhere.”