Nasa undeterred by crash
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA
THE United States has vowed to continue its commercial space launch programme despite the explosion of a rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday.
The unmanned American supply rocket exploded shortly after lifting off from a commercial launch pad in Virginia, the first disaster since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) turned to private operators to run cargo to the ISS.
The 14-storey Antares rocket, built and launched by Orbital Sciences, blasted off from the Wallops Flight Facility, but burst into flames moments later and plunged back to the ground in a massive ball of fire and smoke.
No one was hurt in the crash.
While "disappointed" that Orbital's attempt at a third mission to resupply the ISS failed, "we will continue to move forward toward the next attempt once we fully understand today's mishap", Bill Gerstenmaier, a Nasa associate administrator, said.
The explosion "will not deter us from our work to expand our already successful capability to launch cargo from American shores to the International Space Station".
The craft was carrying a Cygnus cargo ship bound for the station, a US$100 billion (S$127 billion) research laboratory owned and operated by 15 nations that orbits about 418km above Earth.
Another resupply vehicle, the unmanned Russian Progress spacecraft, launched successfully from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan just hours later with nearly three tonnes of food, fuel and supplies. That craft was due to reach the station yesterday.
Officials said the loss of the Cygnus supply vessel posed no immediate problem to the orbiting team of six crew members: two Nasa astronauts, one from the European Space Agency and three Russian cosmonauts.
Frank Culbertson, Orbital Sciences executive vice-president, said the cause of the mishap was under investigation.
The Cygnus mission was non-military, but the company's Antares programme manager, Mike Pinkston, said the craft included "some classified cryptographic equipment, so we do need to maintain the area around the debris in a secure manner".
It was unclear how much the explosion would cost Orbital Sciences, whose flight was partly insured. The rocket and the cargo ship it carried were valued at US$200 million, Mr Culbertson said.
Nasa officials said damage on the ground appeared limited to the launch facility, but its full extent was not immediately known.
Mr Culbertson told reporters that the pad was the only one certified for launching the Antares rocket, so its repair was a top priority, adding: "We will not fly until we understand the root cause and the corrective action to make sure this doesn't happen again."
The Antares rocket has been launched successfully on four prior missions. It is powered by the AJ-26 engine built by GenCorp division Aerojet Rocketdyne.
In May, an AJ-26 exploded during a ground test at Nasa's Stennis Space Centre in Mississippi. Orbital Sciences and Aerojet have not yet released the cause of that engine failure.
Virginia-based Orbital Sciences is one of two companies Nasa hired to fly cargo to the ISS after the space shuttles were retired.