NASA drew criticism from all corners for its increasing dependence on private companies in this post-shuttle era after an unmanned supply rocket exploded just 11 seconds after the liftoff. The Antares rocket blasted off on Tuesday from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. But the 14-story rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp (NYSE:ORB) burst into flames and the vehicle sank downward. It’s the first accident since NASA awarded contracts to private companies to run cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).
Orbital Sciences investigating the mishap
The U.S. space agency said in a statement that no one was hurt in the disaster. Orbital Sciences Corp has promised to figure out what caused the mishap. The Antares rocket has successfully completed four missions. It was the fifth time the rocket was supposed to carry a Cygnus cargo ship to the ISS. Just hours after the Antares’ explosion, Russian resupply vehicle Russian Progress spacecraft launched successfully from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
Currently, there are six crew members on the ISS: three Russian, one from the European Space Agency, and two NASA astronauts. Officials said the loss of Cygnus vessel didn’t pose any immediate trouble for the crew members 260 miles above the Earth. NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier told Reuters that no cargo on the resupply vessel was “absolutely critical.”
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Roscosmos ready to help NASA
Meanwhile, Russian space agency Roscosmos offered help. Alexei Krasnov, a senior Roscosmos official, said the Russian agency was ready to ferry extra cargo to the ISS if NASA requested any such assistance. Though the Cygnus mission was non-military, Orbital Sciences said it did include some classified cryptographic equipment. So, the area around the debris will be maintained in a secure manner. Orbital Sciences shares plunged 15% in after-hours trading Tuesday.
It’s still too early to say how much the disaster would cost the Dulles, Virginia-based company. According to a senior company executive, the rocket and cargo vessel it carried were worth more than $200 million. Orbital Sciences had won a $1.9 billion contract from NASA to ferry cargo to the International Space Station. Another company, SpaceX was awarded a separate $1.6 billion contract by the space agency. SpaceX is scheduled to launch its fourth flight on December 9.