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Antares Cargo Rocket Explodes Seconds After Launch

By Kim Smiley

On October 28, 2014 an Antares cargo rocket bound for the International Space Station (ISS) catastrophically exploded seconds after launch.  The $200 million rocket was planned to be one of eight supply missions to the ISS that Orbital Sciences has a $1.9 billion contract to provide.  The investigation is still underway, but initial findings indicate that there may have been a problem with the engines, which were initially built in the 1960s and early 1970s by the Soviet space program.

Whenever NASA launches a rocket, it is observed by safety personnel with the ability to cause the rocket to self-destruct if it appears to be malfunctioning to minimize potential injuries and property damage. Reports by NASA have indicated that this flight-termination system was engaged shortly after liftoff in this case because the rocket malfunctioned shortly after takeoff.

Video of the launch and the subsequent explosion show the plume from one engine changing shape a second before the massive explosion.  The change in the plume has led to speculation that a turbopump failed shortly after liftoff and suggests that the engines were the source of the malfunction.  Investigators are currently reviewing the video of the launch, telemetry readings from the rocket, and studying the debris to learn as many details as possible about this failure.

The engines in question are NK-33 rocket engines that were initially built (not just designed, but actually manufactured) more than 4 decades ago. So how did engines from the Apollo era end up on a rocket decades later in 2014?  The one-word answer is money.

These engines were originally designed to support the Soviet space program which was disbanded in 1974.  For years, these engines were warehoused with no real purpose.  In 1990, these engines were sold to a company called Aerojet, reportedly for the bargain price of a cool million each.  The engines were refurbished and renamed Aerojet AJ-26s.  The cost of using these older engines was significantly less than developing a brand new rocket design.  In addition to being expensive, a new rocket design requires a significant time investment.  There are also limited alternatives available, partly due to NASA’s shrinking budget.

Orbital Sciences has announced that they will source a different engine and no longer use the AJ-26s, but it’s worth nothing that these rockets have been used successfully in recent years. They have launched Cygnus supply spacecraft three times without incident.

To view a high level Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, of this incident, click on “Download PDF” above.