Explosions are always fun, until they’re not.
Official Orbital Sciences twitter… “There has been a vehicle anomaly. We will update as soon as we are able.”
Yeah, I’d say that their Antares supply rocket blowing up is somewhat anomalous.
The problem apparently started at 3 seconds after liftoff, when something sprung a leak near the engines. The leak started throwing the rocket off course, then something blew out at around 10 seconds. The range safety officer made the decision to press the big red self destruct button, and blew up the rocket.
The upside is that Orbital Sciences got that 7+ seconds of telemetry and video footage to use to diagnose WTF happened. The downside, of course, is that the rocket was still rather close to the launch pad when the range safety officer hit the big red button, and there’s likely significant damage to the equipment around the launch pad that is used to fuel rockets. It’ll be a while before Orbital Sciences is using that launch pad again.
Luckily there are other rockets from other companies that can be used to send supplies to the International Space Station… it’s not like back when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up and the whole space program was grounded for over two years. In fact, a Progress supply craft is being launched tomorrow via Soyuz also bound for the space station. Yay for redundancy, eh?
So now they’ll be figuring out what happened. They’ve previously launched this rocket successfully four times. On the other hand, these engines are over forty years old — Antares is using Soviet-era NK-33 engines, which were developed for the Soviet Union’s unsuccessful moon rocket program. The NK-33 is actually a fairly good engine — it has a high specific impulse, and it is rugged and simple in design, a classic Soviet piece of heavy engineering. What killed the Soviet Moon program was the fact that they couldn’t figure out how to control a large cluster of these engines needed to push their rocket into space given the primitive state of Soviet electronics, combined with budget cuts that left them unable to adequately stand-test the engines prior to use. But the hardware itself was excellent, and Antares is using modern electronics to control the NK-33, not the old Soviet-era control systems. There are more modern designs but they aren’t that much better than the NK-33 and give up some of the simplicity and robustness of the NK-33 design. Still, it may be that there was an uncaught manufacturing flaw in one of the NK-33 engines on this Antares booster. Soviet manufacturing quality was always somewhat iffy, because as Sovoks used to say, “they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” That, rather than the fact that these engines are over forty years old, is what would worry me about using them unless they were very thoroughly inspected and reconditioned. Which Orbital Sciences says they’ve done. We’ll see when the report is finished.
But anyhow: Everybody’s rocket has gone boom at least once. There’s been failures of Soyuz and Proton rockets, and Atlas rockets, and Ariane rockets, and even a spectacular fireworks display from a SpaceX rocket that broke up over Texas. These are basically controlled explosions in motion, and keeping the explosion controlled instead of creating a spectacular boom is not a simple task. What matters is if a man-rated rocket explodes. Cargo rockets… well, it’s not desired, but sh*t happens. What matters is that the causes are discovered and fixed. I’m sure Orbital Sciences, if they survive, will do so, just as all their competitors have done when their own hardware went kaboom. In the end space is an inherently risky business, and better that we take the risks with inanimate cargo than with people — which is why people are still flying on the tried and true Soyuz rather than on these newfangled private rockets. Just sayin’.
- Badtux the Fireworks Penguin