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Antares rocket explodes seconds after liftoff

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Oct 29, 2014, 7:02 UTC

Sen—An unmanned Antares rocket rocket built and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp exploded about 11 seconds after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship intended for the International Space Station. 

The 139-foot tall rocket lifted off on time at 6:22 p.m. EDT from a commercial launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. A NASA TV broadcast showed the rocket falling back toward the ground about 11 seconds later. 

Orbital Sciences said all its personnel were accounted for and no injuries were reported. 

The condition of the launch pad, the only site Antares rockets fly from, was not known. The cause of the accident is under investigation. 

"We’ll get this done just as professionally as we execute our countdowns. This is a part of our job also," Orbital Sciences executive vice president Frank Culbertson told the launch team after the accident. 

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Seconds after Orbital Sciences fifth Antares rocket lifted off its Wallops Island, Virginia launch pad, it exploded and fell back toward the ground. Credit: NASA TV/Screenshot by Irene Klotz for Sen

"We will understand what happened hopefully soon and we’ll get things back on track. We’ve all seen this happen in our business before and we’ve all seen the teams recover from this. We will do the same.

"Be very judicious about talking about it, even amongst yourselves in terms of speculation. Definitely do not talk outside of our family," Culbertson added. 

The accident was the first since NASA turned to commercial launch providers to fly cargo to the space station following the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. 

Orbital Sciences had previously flown the Antares rocket four times, all successfully. Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which is the second company NASA hired to resupply the station, is next slated to fly to the station in December.

"So sorry to hear about the Orbital Sciences launch. Hope they recover soon," SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk posted on Twitter. 

NASA TV's footage of the disastrous launch of Antares. Credit NASA TV

NASA warned the public that, though damage related to the launch was contained to the hazard area, there may have been a scattering of debris. They warned people to stay away from any that they found and to call in the Incident Response Team instead.

In a statement following the explosion, the Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, William Gerstenmaier, said: “While NASA is disappointed that Orbital Sciences' third contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station was not successful today, we will continue to move forward toward the next attempt once we fully understand today's mishap. The crew of the International Space Station is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies.

“Orbital has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first two missions to the station earlier this year, and we know they can replicate that success. Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback. Today's launch attempt will not deter us from our work to expand our already successful capability to launch cargo from American shores to the International Space Station.”

Additional reporting by Paul Sutherland