Rocket Explosion Comes At A Tough Time For NASA

Oct 29, 2014
Originally published on October 29, 2014 6:16 pm
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

At Wallops Island, Virginia, investigators have spent the day picking through debris around a launchpad. Last night, crowds gathered to watch from a distance as an unmanned cargo rocket took off, and exploded.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wow. Woah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Screaming).

BLOCK: That sound, from one of many YouTube videos, as terrified children watched a fireball light up the evening sky. There were no injuries but much was lost. The privately-owned rocket was supposed to carry almost 5,000 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station. In a few minutes, we'll hear from a student whose school experiment was onboard. But first, NPR's Russell Lewis has this story from Huntsville, Alabama, on what the explosion means for NASA, and Orbital Sciences, the company that built the rocket.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Huntsville is one place whose identity is intertwined with the space program. It's nicknamed Rocket City. NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center is based here and it's where Wernher von Braun created the Saturn five rockets that flew astronauts to the moon. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center also calls Huntsville home. So it's no surprise that at the American Astronautical Society conference today, lots of people were talking about the dramatic cargo rocket explosion. Scientists, engineers and even former NASA administrator Michael Griffin chimed in.

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: The orbital's record so far has been great. They've lost one out of five. I don't think anybody's surprised by that. It's just - we just need to fix it and move on.

LEWIS: No one knows yet why the $200 million Antares rocket exploded. Orbital Sciences says it might be several days before investigators have an idea where the failure began. Some theorize the decades-old Russian engines might be to blame. Others think it was a series of small events that cascaded into the explosion. Some even question whether Russian technology should power American rockets at all. Representatives from Orbital Sciences didn't take questions today at the conference, but Kate Kronmiller, a senior vice president with the company, made a brief statement.

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KATE KRONMILLER: Our accident investigation board is down at Wallops today, and they're working diligently to find the root cause of our problem last night and get us back to flying out of Wallop's shortly.

LEWIS: Space is risky business. No flight is ever routine. Accidents have happened since the space age began in the 1950s. Rockets would sometimes explode on the launchpad or just after liftoff like what happened last night. NASA's Bill Gerstenmaier is an associative administrator for Human Exploration. He reminded a crowd of hundreds today about the dangers.

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BILL GERSTENMAIER: You know, it's not easy launching spacecraft and sometimes we think it is and it's really not in any way, shape or form. And that doesn't mean that we should back off of what we're doing or we should be scared or we should do it a different way. We just need to recognize how difficult it is.

LEWIS: The accident comes at a tough time for NASA, which is relying on private contractors to ferry supplies to the space station now that the shuttle program has ended. Gerstenmaier says they were prepared for some type of an accident.

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GERSTENMAIER: We spread equipment across a variety of launch vehicles, a variety of cargo vehicles. That was on purpose. That was because we knew that this was a risky activity of flying cargo to space and we spread that risk across multiple vehicles. So we're fine from an overall spare standpoint.

LEWIS: Eventually, private companies will also carry people into space and to the space station. Conference attendee Jeff Bingham was a longtime staffer on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He says this mishap is just a temporary setback.

JEFF BINGHAM: You know, these are always incidents that if you're going to be committed to a long-term space flight and you know these things are going to happen then you need to just make sure you learn from them. And that's, I think, the most important message, is to learn from this and keep moving forward.

LEWIS: Last night, NASA said the space station has enough supplies for the six person crew to last through March, and that was before today's successful launch and docking of a Russian cargo ship that took 5,000 pounds of food, fuel and supplies to the space station. Russell Lewis, NPR News, Huntsville, Alabama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.