Orbital Sciences confirmed that an operator at the Wallops Range Control Center deployed the Antares rocket’s Flight Termination System, resulting in Tuesday’s explosion. The operator engaged the sequence when it became clear that there was a major problem, and terminating the flight earlier was a much safer option than waiting, as an explosion later in the process could have impacted a more populated area.
The investigation team worked on clearing out potentially hazardous debris, as well as collecting pieces of the stage 1 propulsion system. They recovered some of the Cygnus cargo, and will determine whether anything remains intact enough for use. Fortunately, it appears that the launch structure hasn’t been seriously damaged, though they’ll still have to do some work on it, particularly on the buildings surrounding the launch pad.
Orbital Sciences also examined the telemetry data, which indicates that the pre-launch and launch sequences were executed without any problems. The failure occurred at T+15 seconds, in the first stage, causing the loss of the spacecraft’s propulsion. It’s still unclear what caused this to happen, though some people speculate that the old Soviet engine repurposed for the rocket could have been to blame. The company expects to release more information on Monday.
As for Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson traveled to the New Mexico spaceport to help investigate, advise, and support employees at his company and at Scaled Composite. On his website, Branson says, “We’ve always known that the road to space is extremely difficult – and that every new transportation system has to deal with bad days early in their history. Space is hard – but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together.”
Yesterday’s powered flight test was the first in nine months for SpaceShipTwo—the last one was a success. Yesterday’s endeavor was the first since Virgin Galactic switched to a new type of fuel—they left behind a rubber-based solid fuel and instead used a plastic-based fuel, also known as a polyamide fuel. Virgin and Scaled Composite tested the new fuel for quite a while, and decided to use it because it “showed better performance by several measures, including the capability to send SpaceShipTwo higher.” It’s unclear whether the fuel switch had anything to do with yesterday’s explosion.
Tom Bower, who wrote Branson’s biography Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun and Made a Fortune, called the rocket “very crude,” and said project engineers described it to him as “very dangerous.” He went so far as to call yesterday’s disaster “predictable and inevitable,” though whether that’s because of the rocket itself or because of the epic nature of the task is unclear.
Yesterday, SpaceShipTwo broke apart soon after being released by the carrier plane WhiteKnightTwo. Both pilots ejected—one was pronounced dead at the scene, and the other was taken to the hospital immediately after he reached the ground. Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites have not released the names of the pilots, or the condition of the survivor.
Time will tell how much these crashes will impact the companies, their missions, and privatized spaceflight in general. But Chris Hadfield has some encouraging words, saying, “We call it the edge of the envelope, and when you’re trying to understand the edge of the envelope, whether in a spaceship or a plane, there are inevitably accidents.” But despite those accidents, Hadfield believes we’ll press forward with space exploration: “It’s fundamental to our nature to be curious about what lies over the next hill.”