Orbital Sciences expect to learn cause of rocket explosion within week

Damage at Va. launch pad better than expected


WALLOPS ISLAND, Virginia – Wednesday evening NASA announced it had completed an initial assessment of the Wallops Island, Virginia, launch facility where an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded seconds after lifting off from the launch pad.

"The initial assessment is a cursory look; it will take many more weeks to further understand and analyze the full extent of the effects of the event," NASA wrote in a statement. "A number of support buildings in the immediate area have broken windows and imploded doors. A sounding rocket launcher adjacent to the pad, and buildings nearest the pad, suffered the most severe damage. At Pad 0A the initial assessment showed damage to the transporter erector launcher and lightning suppression rods, as well as debris around the pad."

Orbital Sciences' vice president of corporate communications, Barron Beneski, told Local 6 that damage to the launch pad area was better than expected.

"There is some damage, it's going to take us some time, but it's not starting over," said Beneski.

"The overall findings indicate the major elements of the launch complex infrastructure, such as the pad and fuel tanks, avoided serious damage, although some repairs will be necessary," Orbital Sciences wrote in a statement. "However, until the facility is inspected in greater detail in the coming days, the full extent of necessary repairs or how long they will take to accomplish will not be known."

"At this point do you have any preliminary idea as to what happened?" asked Local 6's Erik von Ancken.

"No, that's what we're in the process of doing right now," said Beneski.

Beneski said he expected to use telemetry data, video evidence and debris collected to develop a preliminary cause for the rocket failure within a week.

Orbital Sciences said a range safety officer destructed the rocket as soon as an anomaly was detected several seconds into flight.

"You felt the first explosion," said Theresa McCready, who witnessed the explosion from across the bay. "And then the fireball came and you felt the second one. It was the strongest of anything I've ever felt in all my years, never felt anything like it."

"I was standing up against the window and that concussion was such that it knocked me back from the window," said Louis Wright, who was working in his kitchen at Wright's Seafood restaurant at the edge of the bay.

The explosion cracked windows and knocked down ceiling tiles at shops and restaurants several miles from the NASA Wallops Island Flight Facility.

No one was hurt because all personnel had been cleared out of the firing zone.

This was to be the third resupply mission for Orbital Sciences under NASA's commercial resupply partnership. Orbital Sciences has contracted with NASA to service the International Space Station eight times at a cost of $1.9 billion. Space X is NASA's other commercial resupply partner.

"We are determined to keep this cargo bridge from Earth to the space station going and fulfill our obligation to the CRS contract," said Beneski. "It's going to take us a while to get back to flight but we're going to do just that."

Residents of Temperanceville, the town closest to the Wallops Islands facility, expressed their concern over the time it will take for Orbital Sciences to get back to flight.

"What's going to happen to these people when they don't have any work?" asked Suzie Besecker, who lives so close to the flight facility that the explosion knocked pictures off her walls. "They're not going to start immediately building a new rocket. They're going to have to wait till the investigation's over."

Besecker said Temperanceville has come to rely on rocket launches to bring much-needed business into the community.

"The unemployment rate is going to go up, money spent in the community is going to go down," said Besecker.

Orbital Sciences' next flight to the ISS is scheduled for April, but Beneski said he would not be surprised if the commercial company was not ready by then.

NASA said environmental damage to the island appeared to be minimal.

"The Wallops environmental team also is conducting assessments at the site," NASA wrote in a statement. "Preliminary observations are that the environmental effects of the launch failure were largely contained within the southern third of Wallops Island, in the area immediately adjacent to the pad. Immediately after the incident, the Wallops' industrial hygienist collected air samples at the Wallops mainland area, the Highway 175 causeway, and on Chincoteague Island. No hazardous substances were detected at the sampled locations."

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