Inquiry begins after US supply rocket explodes seconds after lift-off

Unmanned rocket was carrying supplies for International Space Station


Authorities today started investigating what caused an unmanned US supply rocket to explode in a fireball moments after lift-off from a Virginia launch pad, destroying supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station.

The 14-storey Antares rocket, built and launched by Orbital Sciences, blasted off from the Nasa Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island yesterday evening but burst into flames moments later. It was the first disaster since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration turned to private operators to run cargo to the space station.

Although no one was hurt in the accident, witnesses said the explosion looked like a “ball of fire” and shook buildings for miles around.

“The explosion was a big boom – we could also feel it here, just the ground shaking,” said Shirley Lapole, assistant education co-ordinator at the Nasa Visitors Center, who was watching the launch from about 11km away.

The rocket carried a Cygnus cargo ship with more than 2,273 kg of equipment and supplies for the station, a $100 billion research laboratory owned and operated by 15 nations that orbits about 420km above Earth.

Heightened security

The loss of the supply vessel posed no immediate problem for the orbiting station’s six-member crew: two from Nasa, one from the European Space Agency and three Russians, officials said.

“It’s a great loss when you lose a vehicle like that . . . but we press on,” Nasa space station flight engineer Barry Wilmore said during an in-flight interview today. “We’ve got supplies to last us four to six months.” – (Reuters)