Questions for NASA after Rocket Explosion

29 October, 2014

An unmanned privately-owned rocket bringing supplies to the International Space Station exploded seconds after launch Tuesday night. The accident did not cause any injuries on the ground. However, it has raised questions about efforts by the US space agency NASA to use private companies to carry out near-Earth space exploration and supply missions.

The Antares rocket exploded as it took off from NASA's launch center in Wallops Island, Virginia. Orbital Sciences Corporation built the rocket. It was carrying a Cygnus supply vehicle containing more than 2,200 kilograms of supplies and experiments to the International Space Station, or ISS.

However, during a press conference on Tuesday night, NASA's William Gerstenmaier said none of the supplies were in his words, critical, to the space station crew. He said the ISS crew is in no danger.

Questions for NASA after Rocket Explosion
Unmanned Antares rocket is seen exploding seconds after lift off from a commercial launch pad in this still image from NASA video at Wallops Island, Virginia, Oct. 28, 2014.

NASA officials have blocked off the area on Wallops Island. They warn that some of the wreckage from the rocket may be dangerous.

News reports centered on the Antares rocket's engines soon after the explosion. They are Russian-built rocket engines updated in the U.S. They were first designed in the late 1960s to carry Soviet cosmonauts to the moon. The liquid-fueled engines were chosen for their power to lift heavy loads.

Frank Culbertson is Executive Vice President and General Manager of Advanced Programs for Orbital Sciences. He says the engines were tested in the U.S. However, the website reported that the design exploded during a test at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi in May.

Mr. Culbertson said the company has a lot of information to study to learn about what happened. He noted:

"We don't know if it was the engine or not. That's something we'll try to determine as quickly as possible."

He added that the history of the engine has been well-documented. He also noted that the rocket cost the company about $200 million. The launch was to be the Antares rocket's third supply mission to the ISS. Orbital Sciences released a statement saying: "As soon as we understand the cause we will begin the necessary work to return to flight."

Elon Musk is the chief executive of SpaceX, a competitor to Orbital Sciences. In a 2012 interview with Wired magazine, Mr. Musk had strongly criticized the Russian-built engines used by Orbital Sciences.

The accident has drawn attention to NASA's dependence on private companies in the U.S. to provide space flight vehicles and services. NASA is paying Orbital Sciences Corporations and the company SpaceX in California billions of dollars to bring supplies to the ISS. The US space agency also wants SpaceX and aerospace company Boeing to start launching astronauts to the orbiting laboratory by 2017.

Recently, NASA announced its choice of two spaceships, one built by Boeing and the other by SpaceX to bring American astronauts to the International Space Station. The program is to cost $6.8 billion.

NASA officials say the International Space Station remains well supplied. On Wednesday, Russia successfully launched an unmanned Soyuz rocket and supply ship from its space center in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The Progress 57 cargo ship is expected to reach the ISS Wednesday.

I'm Mario Ritter.

Mario Ritter wrote this report for VOA's Learning English. Materials form NASA, the Associated Press, Reuters and VOA were used. Hai Do was the editor.


Word in this Story

supplies- n. the amount of something that can be given or sold to others; needed equipment, food and other items

wreckage-n. what remains of something severely damaged or destroyed

liquid-fueled-adj. (relating to rockets) using a liquid fuel rather than a solid fuel

competitor-n. any person or group trying to gain or do better at something than another person or group (example, a business competitor)

aerospace-adj. describing the industry of manufacturing aircraft and spacecraft

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