Science was lost in Antares rocket explosion

Investigators looking into the failed launch of the Antares rocket have a big job ahead of them to figure out what went wrong, and how to make it right the next time.

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Antares rocket explosion
Tony Rice

Tuesday night the launch of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket carrying an unmanned Cygnus spacecraft failed seconds after launch, falling in a fireball onto the launch pad at Wallops Island, Va.

Those in the space business call it a CATO or Catastrophe At Take Off. Though the mission failed to deliver, the safety procedures and preparations were successful. The good news is there was only property damage and no lives were lost nor any injuries. The bad news is that 4,883 pounds of cargo was lost.

The sail-boater who strayed into the danger zone Monday night, causing a scrub, probably has an even better understanding of why those notices to mariners are sent out as well.

Even in this new world of commercial spaceflight, no one is celebrating. Not SpaceX or any other Orbital Sciences competitor. Not any Russian manufacturer of competitors to the Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 engines, which powered the failed first stage. All eagerly await the findings of the accident investigation board that is being put together.

They have a big job ahead of them, going through not only the debris at the launch pad but mountains of telemetry data that streamed off the rocket even in its seconds-long flight. Even personal notes scrawled by flight controllers will be part of the investigation. The root cause and fix has been identified by the most junior, but steely eyed, engineer in the room in the past.

The shock and disappointment was evident last night, not only in the spectators a mile away from the launch pad but also on the voice loop from the professionals tasked with the launch. They watch months and years of their professional lives go up in flames.

One-third of the cargo was crew supplies, including clothing (we still haven’t figured out laundry in space, so shirts and shorts are worn for many days and then discarded), food and other items. The crew of the International Space Station is safe and has sufficient supplies to last them until at least March even if another cargo craft does not visit them. That's not the case as of Wednesday morning, when a Russian Progress M-25M cargo craft arrived shortly after 9 a.m. SpaceX is also planning a launch of their Dragon capsule filled with cargo from Cape Canaveral on December 9. Critical supplies that were to be delivered by Tuesday's mission can easily be re-manufactured and have already been placed on that SpaceX manifest.

Another third of the cargo was vehicle parts from NASA and the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA), spare parts for the station.

The biggest loss is the remaining third of the cargo, just over 1,600 pounds of science experiments. We can only imagine the disappointment from the fourth- through 12th-graders as well as college students who contributed to the suite of research on board under the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). Some of these students were on hand for the launch while the rest watched from their schools in South Carolina, British Columbia, California, Louisiana, Michigan, Washington, D.C., Missouri, Texas, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey and Alabama.

These experiments largely focused on long-duration spaceflight, studying things like food spoilage (Colleton County Middle School, Walterboro, S.C.), muscle development in microgravity (St. Monica Catholic School, Kalamazoo, Mich.), using red worms to compost good waste into soil (Urban Promise Academy, Oakland, Calif.) and even how chrysanthemums might be useful in purifying the air in spacecraft (Georgetown and George Washington Universities, Washington, D.C.).

These students learned a lesson that the rocket men and women at Wallops Island and every other launch site know well: Space is hard. I hope they continue to follow the investigation and Antares' return to flight.

That's the cool part of science and engineering — figuring out what went wrong and making it right.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.


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