A Bad Day At Wallops Island

Unless you’ve been under a rock (or asleep, I guess, but if this is the first thing you’re reading when you wake up, please let me know) you’ve heard there was a catastrophic failure this evening of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus spacecraft on the ORB-3 resupply mission to the International Space Station.

In the black humor parlance of the rocket and space industry, this is referred to as “a bad day.” (Seriously.)

It’s way, way too early to have any definitive answers. The launch occurred just after sunset, so the area is dark, and with toxic fuel and other safety issues in the crash site they’ll be waiting until dawn to start moving in, picking up the pieces, and starting to figure out what happened. So there are lots of terms such as “appears” and “probably” and “might be” below. Nobody knows anything much at this point. But with that said…


The vehicle appeared to lift off normally, rose for six to eight seconds to maybe a couple hundred feet, when there was a huge gout of flame from the engines (much bigger than the already huge tail of fire that’s left behind a normal launch), followed almost immediately by what appeared to be a shower of burning pieces falling off of the engine. The rocket’s lift ceased, it started to tip over and fall backward toward the pad, there was another explosion (probably caused by the Range Safety Officer hitting the Big Red Button to blow it up before things got worse), at which point the whole thing fell back to the ground near the pad and then ALL of the fuel went up in a monstrous fireball.

Yes, I was watching live and, yes, it was like a punch in the gut to watch. Not as bad as Challenger, Columbia, or Apollo 1, but still, it’s a shock.

The good news is that the Cygnus was uncrewed, carrying only supplies to ISS. The manifest included water, compressed nitrogen, food, clothing, spare parts for various ISS equipment, and equipment and materials for scientific experiments being conducted on ISS.

The bad news is that a lot of scientific hardware was destroyed, representing years of work by thousands of students and scientists. The launch facility at Wallops Island in Virginia probably suffered some damage, but it will be days or weeks before we know how much and how long it will take to repair. And a big link in the supply chain to keep ISS going will be down for a while.

Let’s just hope it’s not the 2+ years that NASA was grounded after the Shuttle accidents. Maybe more like the six to eight months that the Russians are grounded after their Proton launch failures earlier this year. But the most important point is to be thorough, find the cause of this accident, and fix it.

A few points and observations (see my Twitter comments, which should be displayed over on the right side of the screen):

  • After the accident I had one TV showing the NASA-TV feed, while channel flipping on another to see how the mainstream media handled it.
  • None of the major news networks had anything for almost a half hour, then it was only a quick flash on Fox Business News before CNN started more extensive coverage.
  • In Fox Business’ brief first report, the anchor twice called the explosion “spectacular.” Okay, I guess, he was probably seeing it for the first time, but given the tragic nature of the footage, couldn’t he have chosen a better word? Isn’t that what he does for a living, deal with words? Perhaps “catastrophic” or “horrific” would work better, and we can save “spectacular” for a glorious sunset or a picture of a rainbow in the Grand Canyon.
  • When did CNN stop reporting news and instead put on uninformed talking balloon heads who try to make every story into something filled with hysteria and panic?
  • The CNN coverage was so-so when they broke into their normal show at about eight to ten minutes before the top of the hour. The anchor there was a bit clueless, but at least he wasn’t horribly wrong on all of his facts.
  • After the top of the hour when they went into the “Erin Burnett OutFront” show, things went into the toilet quickly as far as the quality of reporting went. In part I’m sure it was coming from the producers, but they heard something on the NASA or Orbital Sciences audio feed about the crash area being closed off because of “classified crypto equipment.” The reporting went straight into paranoid hysteria, with that phrase being on the screen almost constantly for the next twenty minutes or so, and Ms. Burnett repeating it at least a dozen times. It was as if someone thought they had figured out that this was some sort of super secret spy mission launch and they were going to break the story! Ta-dah!!
  • Except that, even if they heard that phrase correctly (others on Twitter noted it as well), it almost certainly didn’t mean what they kept trying to make it mean. CNN correspondent Miles O’Brien, CNN reporter Tom Foreman, and retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly all got asked about it and all said that it was almost certainly nothing. All three emphasized repeatedly that this was an ISS resupply mission, its cargo was made up of supplies, equipment, and science experiments, and there is ZERO military or spying use for ISS. None of that mattered. Kudos to Mr. O’Brien, Mr. Foreman, and Captain Kelly for being calm and factual when dealing with this lack of professionalism on CNN’s part.
  • I never saw anything from any of the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox) except for segments in their evening news half hour shows.
  • At the top of the next hour, every single news network had something about it — but only as the third, or fourth, or fifth piece, even though the news was less than two hours old. Instead we heard first about the police chief in Ferguson resigning, Ebola, the upcoming election…
  • When did we all get so blase about spaceflight that even a graphic disaster is less newsworthy than same-old-same-old political mudslinging?
  • Was that dismissive attitude because the mission was uncrewed? (No blood for the “If it bleeds, it leads!” editorial standard.)
  • Getting into space is HARD! The press forgets it quickly, as does the general public, but the people working in the space industry never forget. The fact that we do it so successfully so often is a tribute to the amazing job that all of these people do. If they didn’t, we would have accidents like this 98% of the time instead of 2% of the time. (Those are ballpark figures for illustration purposes only – but they’re close.)
  • The crew of ISS is in no danger of running out of food, air, water, or other supplies because of this accident. (This was the next thing that CNN and others wanted to panic over, even when they stopped obsessing over “classified crypto equipment.)
  • The mission managers at NASA plan ahead with a four to six month reserve, so even if no other spacecraft got to ISS, they would still be fine until at least March or so. But the fact is, there are other cargo spacecraft in use. SpaceX is scheduled for another cargo mission in mid-December, and the Russians are launching a Progress cargo mission in about an hour.
  • In addition, Sierra Nevada is independently continuing to develop their Dream Chaser spacecraft. Also, the Japanese space agency JAXA has their H-II Transfer Vehicle, with the next one scheduled for mid-2015.
  • THAT‘s why we need to have multiple, independent methods of getting into space! If one method has a problem and needs to shut down for a few months or a year, the others can pick up the slack.
  • Remember that the next time that the idiots in Congress suggest that we should pick either SpaceX or Orbital Sciences and get rid of the other.
  • There’s an interesting video on YouTube (here) taken from the press viewing site. (Do NOT read the comments, they’re full of troll bait and BS.) There’s more than a bit of panic since they’re closer than the general public and need to evacuate fast. There is some (small) danger there from debris, but a much bigger one from the shock wave (that was one freaking big “BOOM!”) and from possibly having the fumes from the burning fuel drift over them. That crap can be toxic.
  • There’s another interesting video (here) taken from a small plane flying inland from the launch site maybe twenty to thirty miles or so. I would have been more worried about that shock wave than this guy was, but perhaps ignorance is bliss.
  • Kudos to the Orbital Sciences and NASA leaders who stood up and faced the press in a news conference just two hours after the accident. That’s got to be tough, really tough.
  • Kudos to Orbital and NASA for keeping the televised feed and audio going on and on after the accident, rather than cutting it off and trying to cover things up. That kind of openness and transparency is badly needed and greatly appreciated at times like this.

The biggest takeaway isn’t that getting into space is hard. It’s that despite how hard it is, even when we have a problem like this (and we will have more in the future) we don’t stop. We pick up the pieces, figure out what went wrong, correct it, and move forward to launch again.

THAT‘s rocket science.

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