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Antares launch failure

Immediately after lifting off from the launchpad this evening, Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket exploded, falling back onto the launchpad.

We will have to wait for more details, but regardless this is bad news for Orbital Sciences. The bidding for the second round of cargo contracts to ISS is about to begin, and they will have competition from Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. This accident will hurt them.

I’ve embedded footage of the launch failure below. The damage to the launchpad itself could be the worst aspect of this, as it will cost Orbital Sciences a great deal of money and time to get the pad rebuilt.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

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  • Mitch C

    “We do these things … not because they are easy, but because they are hard”

  • danae

    Terrible news. What a loss.

  • Frank K

    These kinds of failures are getting fewer and far between for mature US programs. Still, its a reminder that there are so many things that can go wrong, and sometimes they end in spectacular failure. Count on Orbital to learn from this.

  • t-dub

    That was a spectacular failure. I’m no expert but it looked to me like possibly a fuel pump disintegrated. Something failed catastrophically in that lower part of the 1st stage.

  • Edward


    Did I see the rocket hesitate three-seconds after liftoff?

    I am always amazed that large rockets work at all, considering that the engines burn enough fuel in a small volume to equal the power of many full-sized, gigawatt, electrical power plants. And they put those high-temperature, high-pressure, high-thrust rocket engines only a few feet away from the fuel tanks, all of which is as light-weight as possible (unlike those power plants).

    Yeah. It *is* rocket science.

    People should be careful about Robert’s comment about the competition from Sierra Nevada. Please notice that he did not say that SN will be helped, because it won’t. After problems like this happen in aerospace, everyone is hurt. This only “helps” SN in that Orbital has been so badly hurt relative to SN, but it damages the confidence that people have in commercial space in general, so that private investment and government funding will be harder to come by in the future, even for SN.

    I have had friends say to me that launch failures (even after Challenger!) should be good for business, as they believed that payloads, rockets, and infrastructure have to be rebuilt. Not so. Many payloads and rockets are delayed or even cancelled due to the moratorium on launches until the problem can be found and fixed (people may be laid off or reassigned to projects that would have needed new hires), and money that goes into the failure investigation (plus the pad repairs, problem fixes, and payload replacement) could have been better spent on productive endeavors.

    This is also an unseen problem with the recent Russian rocket failures (for anyone who may be experiencing schadenfreude), because the business and science lost due to these failures is expensive and takes time to replace (assuming it eventually is replaced). Insurance costs increase, further harming future space business worldwide. Russia’s failures do not necessarily mean more launch business for other countries.

    Failures result in lost jobs, lost productivity, delayed expansion into space exploration and development, and lost faith that it is worth going there in the first place.

  • mpthompson

    I agree this hurts everyone in the business. However the great costs of these events is another reason that launch costs need to fall dramatically. It would be much better if this were a $10M mistake rather than a $100M mistake not including the cost of the cargo.

  • wodun

    “I have had friends say to me that launch failures (even after Challenger!) should be good for business, as they believed that payloads, rockets, and infrastructure have to be rebuilt. ”

    Classic broken windows fallacy.

    “Many payloads and rockets are delayed or even cancelled due to the moratorium on launches until the problem can be found and fixed ”

    What this incident emphasizes, is the necessity of having more than one launch provider. Without two providers, we would be counting on the Russians again. As it stands, we can bump up a Falcon 9 launch. A moratorium for Orbital wont, or shouldn’t, keep the entire program grounded.

  • wodun

    Should be interesting to see if this is a supply chain problem.

  • Tom Billings

    Actually, it would *still* be a $100 million mistake, because a failure like this would destroy all the value of the launcher, including the future missions it would have flown. Worse, in some ways, is the time lost to programs. Planetary Resources had their asteroid search prototype on the Cygnus, and it will be spring before their next prototype was scheduled to fly.

  • DK Williams

    I hope they were insured.

  • Marcello


    Please note that while your comments last night indicated that the range safety officer destroyed the
    rocket due to visual and telemetry anomalies, the way you’ve posted this leads a reader with the
    impression that the rocket simply exploded. Misleading? Seems so. Although, perhaps I’ve been
    misled by my senses in my own cursory reading of your great website.


  • At this point it is unclear what happened, whether the first stage exploded or whether the range office destroyed it. What is clear is that an explosion happened, and it seemed to happen suddenly and was the cause of the failure. This is what I have said.

    I am also pretty sure that also said on the air that we as yet don’t know what happened and that we will have to wait for the conclusions of the investigation.

  • Chris Kirkendall

    Right ! ! It’s a good thing NASA didn’t try to go with just one provider…

  • Chris Kirkendall

    Another thought – not to get all “Conspiracy Theory” on it, but Antares uses Russian-built rocket engines, they recently came out with new upgraded versions of their engines, and the recent tension between the US & Russia over Ukraine & other issues brought the possibility of an interruption in supply of these engines into the conversation. It’s all one big interesting mix. I’ll be curious to see if it turns out one of the engines was at fault. I’m no rocket scientist, so I’ll leave the speculation to those who know more about what might have caused it – fuel tank problem, fuel leak, pump – or Russian-built engine ?? Although I doubt they’d want to supply us with defective stuff, since they profit from the sale of those…

  • The Russian engines were completely refurbished and then test fired thoroughly before being installed in Antares. Nonetheless, they are old, having originally been built for the Soviet N1 rocket in the 1960s.

    It is also quite possible the failure was from some other cause. We will have to wait for the investigation to find out.

  • Pzatchok

    I don’t think the RO had time to hit the kill button.

    It looked like everything was going pretty good until the sudden acute engine disassembly.

    Though he probably did hit the button just to make sure any explosives detonated before being thrown around randomly.

  • Edward

    “Classic broken windows fallacy.”

    Excellent point, Wodun. It is all too easy to fall into such thinking, thus many people do. That which is seen becomes many people’s truth. Bastiat’s essay, “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen,” is (or should be) required reading for anyone interested in economics.

    Missing the unseen consequences is one reason why many people believe in Keynesian Economics, even though it has never worked in all the times that it has been tried (why don’t they see that?). We see those who have been given more money, but we don’t see those who didn’t get hired or lost their jobs because of the misdirected money. We also don’t see the lost productivity, the very definition of an economy.

    It is also why people think that raising the minimum wage is good (if doing so is so good then why don’t we raise it to $20 per hour, or even more?) We see those who enjoy a higher wage, but we don’t see those who never get hired, thus have no wages at all to enjoy, because they do not yet possess the skills to be worth the extra money to any hiring employers.

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