WALLOPS, VA (KTRK) --An unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded moments after liftoff Tuesday evening, with debris falling in flames over the launch site in Virginia. No injuries were reported following the first catastrophic launch in NASA's commercial spaceflight effort.
The accident at Orbital Sciences Corp.'s launch complex at Wallops Island was sure to draw criticism over the space agency's growing reliance on private U.S. companies in this post-shuttle effort.
NASA is paying billions of dollars to Orbital Sciences and the SpaceX company to make station deliveries, and it's counting on SpaceX and Boeing to start flying U.S. astronauts to the orbiting lab as early as 2017. NASA spokesman Rob Navias said there was nothing on the lost flight that was urgently needed by the six people living on the space station.
When the rocket exploded, it destroyed items that several Houston students were sending up with it. Students from Cristo Rey Jesuit High Preparatory School of Houston, as well as Awty International, were sending items up to the ISS aboard Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket, which blew up over the launch complex at Wallops Island, Virginia, just six seconds after liftoff.
"While the students are crushed about what happened to their hard work, everyone is so relieved that no-one was injured," said Cristo Rey Jesuit principal Katherine Cater.
Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket blew up over the launch complex, just six seconds after the liftoff. The company said everyone at the site had been accounted for, and the damage appeared to be limited to the facilities.
Flames could be seen shooting into the sky as the sun set. There was no hint of any trouble until the rocket exploded. This was the second launch attempt for the mission. Monday evening's try was thwarted by a stray sailboat in the rocket's danger zone. The restrictions are in case of just such an accident that occurred Tuesday.
"We will understand what happened - hopefully soon - and we'll get things back on track," Orbital Sciences' executive vice president Frank Culbertson told his team an hour after the failure. "We've all seen this happen in our business before, and we've all seen the teams recover from this, and we will do the same."
The Wallops flight facility is small compared to major NASA centers like those in Florida, California and Texas. Those who work at Wallops Island joke that even people living on Virginia's Eastern Shore are surprised to learn about rocket launches there.
Denise Bowden, a spokeswoman for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, said it looked like a normal launch at first Tuesday. The launch pad on the island is visible from the town about four miles away.
"When it started off, it looked beautiful. A friend of mine was standing behind me -- he works civil service over there with NASA -- and he goes, 'Uh, oh.' To me it looked normal, but he knew something was wrong right away. He said, "It's bad." And then, it just went boom. And then, the explosions that followed."
Culbertson advised people not to touch any rocket debris that might wash ashore or that came down on their property because hazardous materials were aboard.
Right afterward, the roomful of engineers and technicians were ordered to maintain all computer data for the ensuing investigation. Culbertson advised his staff not to talk to news reporters and to refrain from speculating among themselves.
"Definitely do not talk outside of our family," said Culbertson, a former astronaut who once served on the space station.
It was the fourth Cygnus bound for the orbiting lab; the first flew just over a year ago. SpaceX is scheduled to launch another Dragon supply ship from Cape Canaveral in December.
The Cygnus cargo ship Tuesday had held 5,000 pounds of experiments and equipment. By coincidence, the Russian Space Agency was proceeding with its own supply run on Wednesday, planned well before the U.S. mishap.
All the scientists and students behind the science experiments aboard the Cygnus were surely devastated. About one-third of the capsule's contents involved research. Among the instruments that were lost: a meteor tracker and 32 mini research satellites, along with numerous experiments compiled by schoolchildren.
The two Americans, three Russians and one German on the orbiting lab were informed promptly of the accident.
Until Tuesday, all of the supply missions by the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences and California-based SpaceX had been near-flawless.
President Barack Obama has long championed this commercial effort, urging that NASA focus its human spaceflight effort less on nearby orbit and more on destinations like asteroids and Mars. He was in Wisconsin for a campaign rally Tuesday evening and was kept abreast of the accident.
SpaceX's billionaire founder and chief officer Elon Musk - whose company is the face, in many ways, of the commercial effort - said he was sorry to learn about the failure. "Hope they recover soon," he said in a tweet.
Support poured in from elsewhere in the space community late Tuesday night.
"Very sorry to see the Antares rocket launch failure," said Chris Hadfield, a former Canadian astronaut who served as space station commander last year. "Spaceflight is hard. Very glad that no one was hurt."
John Logdson, former space policy director at George Washington University, said it was unlikely to be a major setback to NASA's commercial space plans. But he noted it could derail Orbital Sciences for a while given the company has just one launch pad and the accident occurred right above it.
The explosion hit Orbital Science's stock, which fell more than 15 percent in after-hours trading.
The Associated Press contributed to this report