back to article BONFIRE of the MEGA-BUCKS: $200m+ BURNED in SECONDS in Antares launch blast

Reps from NASA and Orbital Sciences have been furiously explaining themselves at a press conference in the wake of the destruction of Orbital's Antares rocket – and possibly the partial loss of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Youtube Video "It's a really tough business," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate …

  1. Paul 129

    Nun on board!

    And a naughty fox seen departing the premises

    1. Captain DaFt

      Re: Nun on board!

      Naughty fox? I think this Batrachian's family finally got their revenge!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Failure mode

    Looks like the exhaust 'flared' out wide just for a second before the engine compartment blew out completely. Could an engine throat have melted? I've not seen a rocket fail in quite this way before.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Failure mode

      Wondering about that bright flareup before the blast. What if the LOX supply were somehow cut off to one engine, say due to a failed LOX pump? Then unburned fuel would start shooting out the nozzle, burning ragged and bright. Burning inside the engine would cease with no LOX available. But the fuel would also back up into the shattered LOX pump, and then into the engine compartment were there's lots of LOX swirling around. Give it all a few milliseconds to mix, then ignite via the exhaust flame...

  3. Kharkov

    Let me give an English response... Bugger!

    While we don't know what the cause of the loss-of-vehicle was, I think we can safely expect a lot of attention to go to the engines, their age and... gasp... the fact that they're from RUSSIA (oh noes!). Expect much Russian-therefore-rubbish nonsense for the next couple of weeks.

    And again, more seriously this time, commiserations to Orbital. Rocket science is never easy, there's a million things that can go wrong when you're at the very edge of what the tech can do.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      ... especially when you are at the very edge of what government-industrial-policy-propelled tech can do.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Oh, a thumbdown. Carry on, comrade!

    2. ElReg!comments!Pierre

      > While we don't know what the cause of the loss-of-vehicle was

      "Hey dude, what do you reckon 12 m is in feet?"

      "Dunno, just put 12, it's almost 5 and I don't want to be late at the Johnsons' barbecue they always have the best marinated ribs"

    3. GBE

      Rocket science is never easy

      Well, rocket science is actualy pretty easy:

      F = m*a

      F = G (m1*m2/r^2)

      Throw in some freshman level calculus, a $300 PC to run some orbital calculations and simulations on, and bob's your uncle.

      Rocket _engineering_ OTOH, is a complete and utter bitch.

      The launch failure was undoubtedly due to an engineering problem, not a science problem.

      1. Kharkov

        Re: Rocket science is never easy

        Yep, you're right. Mea Culpa, mea culpa... Sloppy language, hastily written. Consider it amended to 'rocket engineering'

        And the icon? Well, when I wrote the post, the moon was in Sagittarius & Jupiter was rising (probably after sleeping in after a wild night) in the lower-third declension... or something...

    4. Mark 85

      Yep.. Russian design and one with vast potential. As I recall, the lead designer had an easy chair on the launch pad to oversee everything prior to launch and then BANG! The thing blew up on the pad while fueling. Killed him and something 200 others also. At some point they finally got the things to work but canceled the program because the US got to the moon first.

      There's a couple of vids out there on Youtube and if I'm remembering right, every launch stack blew up as some point before the second stage could fire. I might be wrong. Feel free to correct me and slap me upside the head.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        "At some point they finally got the things to work "

        For some values of "work"

        There were zero successful N1 launches. The 2 that cleared the tower were blown up shortly afterwards and the one which didn't made a far bigger mess than Orbital Sciences.

        It's not like the russians had a monopoly on exploding engines, but at least NASA managed to explode its Rocketdyne RS-25s (Space shuttle main engines) on the test rig before installing them into flight configuration. Interestingly, that part of history (engine explosions due to poor assembly/welding) has been airbrushed from the Wikipedia pages.

    5. R Callan

      Re rocket science

      Rocket science is dead easy, little more than f=ma plus a little elementary chemistry (e.g. 2H2+O2=2H2O = heat, lots of heat) The hard part is rocket engineering

  4. Anonymous Blowhard

    Flash! Bang! Wallops!

    Too soon?

    1. Kharkov

      Re: Flash! Bang! Wallops!

      Kinda yes but funny nonetheless...

      An upvote, sir, for a moment of levity amidst sadness!

  5. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Taking a Walloping!

    We have confidence we can understand the problems and get back flying when we're ready to fly.

    And, as Obama is wont to say " that after this initial surge of activity, we can have a more regular process just to make sure that we’re crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s going forward”

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm not a moon landing denier by any means, but I still ponder about how we got men to the moon and back over 40 years ago and yet these days even getting things up to a low Earth orbit is a problem.

    1. Rich 11

      It might help to recall the tragedies which struck the Mercury and Apollo programmes.

      Regardless, it's the first hundred miles which is the hardest bit (followed closely by the final hundred miles).

    2. cray74

      "but I still ponder about how we got men to the moon and back over 40 years ago and yet these days even getting things up to a low Earth orbit is a problem."

      The problems recur because launching companies design new hardware, barely test them*, and put them into service. The Apollo program went through an incremental, lengthy** test series of every piece of hardware - Apollo flights 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10; supporting tests by Gemini and Little Joe; and lots of ground testing. Saturn began working fairly well for Apollo missions after lots of headaches and near-disasters on the earlier test flights.

      Then the Saturns were abandoned and new rockets with new engines and new avionics and new frames started being used for new purposes, giving a chance to blow up new rockets in new ways. Each new rocket family has its quirks to iron out: look at the Delta III, Falcon I, and N-1. (The last, interestingly, used the same engine as the Antares.)

      *I'm not sure of the totals, but I'd bet that the summed powered flight phases of all manned and satellite launchers doesn't add up to the same amount of time spent test-flying a new airliner.

      **Lengthy by rocket launcher standards.

      When you cut hardware's weight and safety margins to a minimum, and use it to unleash an incredible amount of horsepower after just a few test flights, things is gonna blow up now and then.

      1. Richard Boyce

        "The Apollo program went through an incremental, lengthy test series of every piece of hardware"

        Not true, there was a race on to beat Kennedy's deadline and beat the Russians. However, the deaths of three astronauts did concentrate some minds.

        1. Captain DaFt

          "However, the deaths of three astronauts did concentrate some minds."

          I always thought the fact that they only had two major accidents with the Apollo missions, and only one of them fatal, was almost as amazing as landing on the the Moon itself.

          Just think, less than a decade and a half from spooked by Sputnik to boots on the Moon.

          And totaled less than a squadron of modern bombers in cost.

        2. cray74

          "'The Apollo program went through an incremental, lengthy test series of every piece of hardware'

          Not true, there was a race on to beat Kennedy's deadline and beat the Russians. However, the deaths of three astronauts did concentrate some minds."

          My statement certainly got less true after you deleted the footnoted caveat on my usage of "lengthy" when you quoted me.

      2. DragonLord

        @cray74 - One other thing to consider is that the rocket is essentially disposable as everyone make a new one for the next launch. IIRC the only exceptions have been the shuttle, the xr-32 (or whatever it is) space plane, and the shuttles fuel tank. Every other rocket is built for that particular launch. If you operated planes in the same way I virtually guarantee that there would be a similar level of testing involved.

        Space X with their grasshopper technology may be the first since the shuttle to have a reusable rocket. At which point the feasibility of rigorous testing of the actual completed rocket comes into the realms of we can do this.

    3. Anonymous Blowhard


      "these days even getting things up to a low Earth orbit is a problem"

      I think that you underestimate how many successful launches there are every year; the rate is over one per week.

      It's always sad when things go wrong, but we are still in the early days of space-flight and the lessons are hard and expensive; in this case it's only money and equipment that were lost. Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want; and I'm sure that Orbital Sciences will get to the bottom of this and use the experience improve their systems and equipment.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: @Thought

        "we are still in the early days of space-flight"

        Yes, something many seem to forget. We are still at that small moment in history where "ship" by default means something which floats on water.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It's worth remembering that the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes were a military project (disguised as a national science project) that had almost literally unlimited resource and a federal political imperative to fully succeed on the basis of defeating a cold war enemy. This was an existential struggle. even then things occasionally went very pear-shaped! oh, and they also had Werner Von-Braun and his team.

      Modern rocketry is done to the lowest cost and doesn't have a sound political commitment, that's why commerical vendors are in the game with their cheap and cheerful devices. It's not really the same game at all.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "I'm not a moon landing denier by any means, but I still ponder about how we got men to the moon and back over 40 years ago and yet these days even getting things up to a low Earth orbit is a problem."

      It was a relatively sane and optimistic time in America... less distraction and communication overload and software fragmentation, very little automation. Engineering was basically done by hand, and all of it checked and rechecked by humans. Now we're in a 1-step-forward 2-steps-back situation with regard to tech.

      I wasn't around back in the day and I'm no rocket scientist, but I've perused enough new and old civil/mechanical drawings to get a feel for quality standards over the years: excellent from the early 1900s to the 80s, then CAD came along and we got sloppy... too busy fussing with our tools to do our work properly.

      I've also done just enough government work to see how government agencies and contractors function (loosely speaking). Top-down decision making by unqualified politicians and bureaucrats with budgets beyond their comprehension. Technical staff who show up from 9 to 5, do what they're told, and don't ask questions, or just kill time. This isn't new but apparently it's been getting worse as governments become bigger and more controlling.

    6. Richard Boyce

      40 years ago, money was no object.

  7. DocJames

    Commiserations to those involved. Tis a shame.

    But the reason I'm here is to take issue with this: "Some stupid sailors delayed the launch by misreading the weather and should count themselves very lucky."

    Why? They were well away from the launch area; the concern was if the rocket exploded at some distance off the pad, showering the downrange with debris. Instead, the disaster happened so close to the pad that it's damaged. The boat would have been fine.

    Without wishing to reignite (sorry) the argument about the sailors, clearly they were in the wrong place, but it would not have endangered them as sadly the rocket did not reach sufficient altitude to do them any damage.

    1. GitMeMyShootinIrons

      They should count themselves lucky as they had a u-boat sized mega-shark patrolling the waters...

  8. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    Nitrogen more important than oxygen

    Educate me: what's going on here? Something to do with the breathing department, or something cryogenic? Enquiring minds want to know!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Nitrogen more important than oxygen

      I would assume that they have a plentiful supply of oxygen up there or ways of scrubbing the air or something.

      However, to keep an air like atmosphere you need approx 80% Nitrogen. Too much Oxygen will kill you. both by oxygen poisoning or as a major fire risk. Also, if you need to stop a fire in a section should a fire break out, you need to flood the area with something. Or open it out into space, which has structural implications I assume.

      This is complete supposition. I have no idea if I am right.

    2. cray74

      Re: Nitrogen more important than oxygen

      The ISS has an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere about the same as Earth at sea level. The days of pure oxygen spacecraft ended with Skylab and Apollo; now only spacesuits run in pure oxygen, low-pressure conditions. So, oxygen and nitrogen to need to be supplied.

      Oxygen is plentifully available from many sources on the ISS. The ISS has "oxygen candles," bottled oxygen, gizmos to strip carbon dioxide and water from the air, and doohickeys that crack the water into oxygen (and dump the hydrogen). Typical adult human oxygen usage is, as I recall, about 2 kilograms per day without recycling the oxygen lost in metabolically-produced water and CO2.

      However, nitrogen has no reserves on the ISS other than bottled nitrogen. It isn't recovered from wastes, cracked from water, or otherwise recycled. Overtime, the atmosphere in the ISS needs more nitrogen to make up for leaks and other losses.

      To my knowledge, the ISS doesn't use cryogenic nitrogen for any refrigeration. It's primary refrigerant is ammonia while it uses water as a heat transfer medium throughout most of the station. Biological specimen storage is performed with mechanical refrigeration, and I think food is sent up in "temperature stabilized" forms that generally don't require refrigeration (let alone cryogenic).

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: Nitrogen more important than oxygen

        Thanks Cray - I'd assumed that the main use was atmospheric. Now I'm wondering just how big the leaks are... I knew that the 02 was recycled/recovered on the whole, but hadn't thought of N2 just leaving while no-one was looking!

        1. cray74

          Re: Nitrogen more important than oxygen

          "Now I'm wondering just how big the leaks are..."

          Not big. I've heard the entire ISS leaks at 1% of the rate of the US shuttle, but I'm not sure what that totals. There's a lot of seals and hull penetrations on every module.

          After a quick Google, it looks like typical leak rates are less than 1 pound per day, but certain operations use considerably more: docking/undocking spacecraft, and astronauts going on EVA. (Russian operations dump 35lbs per EVA, vs. 3.5lbs for US EVAs. I'm not sure if that's in the suits or differing modules' airlocks.)

  9. RainForestGuppy

    Come On..... hard can it be? They can't even get a simple space launch done properly, it's not exactly rocket science .... oh wait...

  10. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

    That's it!

    The follow on project to LOHAN has to be an amateur resupply rocket to the ISS.

    I'm sure Lester and the other boffins will be up for it!

    Appropriate icon?

  11. Real Ale is Best

    SpaceX make it look easy!

    It, of course, isn't.

  12. Rustident Spaceniak

    So, was it Dr No after all?

    And if it was, how did he escape that reactor basin? And where's James Bond when you need him?

    1. Shrimpling

      Re: So, was it Dr No after all?

      Are we sure it wasn't Richard Branson? He does have his own island in the Caribbean.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: So, was it Dr No after all?

        Hmm, Sir Richard does have the eerie smile of a supervillain. Then again, if I had his island, airline, and long-legged companions, without the hairdo, I'd probably be grinning lop-sidedly.

  13. madgabz

    Stupid sailors???

    "Some stupid sailors delayed the launch by misreading the weather and should count themselves very lucky."

    hahaha, as a competitive sailor myself through 35 years, ElReg might elaborate a little on the exact stupidity? I mean, Does ElReg count even meteorologists as infallibe? I'm seeing daily 'wearther misreading' from the pro's every day! :)

    I just sounded odd to me... there are LOTS of 'stupid' sailors out there, but i bet these are just using weather as a (really bad) excuse for getting front row view of launch!

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Time to start work on the mass driver me thinks. Rockets are really only necessary for putting humans in space and humans are no longer necessary in space exploration.

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      "humans are no longer necessary in space exploration"

      How so?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Everything humans can do, robots can do better. Robots can do everything better than you.


        Yes they can


        Yes they can

        1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

          Yep. Let's see how well can the Opportunity wipe the dust off its solar panels. Ah, no, let's not look at that, let's just watch the Curiosity switching that spare tyre... What do you mean it drives backwards now?! You mean it can't swap a tyre?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward


            ... A human on Mars would probably last no longer than a year... last meaning that the radiation from the sun would kill them... And the little backwards robot is still going!

            1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

              Re: Whereas....

              A human on Earth (say in Antarctica) won't last 20 minutes if you leave him outside naked. But people don't go outside naked in Antarctica (unless from out of a sauna and then only for a few seconds).

              Dressing appropriately for the occasion is the key.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Blame the terrorists !

    How come they have not yet done so ? Has anyone heard it on the Fox news already?

    On the other had, should have asked and outsourced to India. They have a good record and very very, very cheap. $74 million all the way to Mars without a hiccup. This would be a stroll in the park. Perhaps, $ 25 or 30 million would have sufficed.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Blame the terrorists !

      > outsourced to India

      Not even once!

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I wonder if they were insured?

    I bet you that somehow this country will be picking up part if not all of the tab.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    TO BOLDLY GO....

    ...shame the launch wasn't delayed until the fifth....nice firework!

  18. i like crisps


    Looks like the Astronauts on the station are going to have to start cutting up their spacesuits into small pieces, as their entire supply of toilet rolls just went up in that blast.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: DARK STAR

      Surely you just cut a hole in the side of the station (or open a window?), and stick your rear end into the vacuum of space. Then your bottom will come back in pristine, clean and smooth as a baby's.

      No need for space toilets, or space loo-roll.

      Can I have my Nobel Prize now please?

      1. Thecowking

        Re: DARK STAR

        If you stick your fundament out into space, you might well lose your bel.

      2. Captain DaFt

        Re: DARK STAR

        "Surely you just cut a hole in the side of the station (or open a window?), and stick your rear end into the vacuum of space. Then your bottom will come back in pristine, clean and smooth as a baby's."

        And then, next orbit 'round, SPLAT!, right against the windshield, and everybody starts arguing over who's going to clean it off.

        1. John Jennings

          Re: DARK STAR

          I wonder just how much of your alimentary canal would be prolapsed as a frozen sausage with that, if your upper body were at 1 atmosphere and your butt in a vaccum.... I dread to think - its probably been experimented somewhere!

          it might take a while to get round, as your poop would be moving at the same speed as the station (more or less), until the next attitude adjustment....

  19. Suburban Inmate

    $200m+ burned in seconds eh?

    It's good, but it's no banker bailout...

  20. Tim Bergel

    Range safety officer?

    "The base of the rocket exploded and it began to fall, at which point it was detonated by the range safety officer"

    Really? It seems clear from the video that the main explosion happened when the rocket hit the ground, surely if it had been detonated as described the explosion would have been in the air?

  21. Sureo

    Sadly the astronauts will be eating freeze-dried broccoli for the next 6 months.

  22. Sirius Lee

    $200 million?

    Didn't I read that the Indians (the ones living to the east of the Arabian peninsula but not quite as far a China) put a rocket in Mars orbit and the whole project cost less than $100 million? If so, why is this launch so expensive? Is it the amount of materiel the rocket is carrying? Is the fuel more expensive?

    1. Kharkov

      Re: $200 million?

      The reason for the much higher cost by the Americans is this, American companies (the ones involved in government spaceflight anyway) operate on a 'cost-plus' contract. They build the rocket, calculate their costs, add on a percentage (let's say 10% although I have no idea what the actual percentage is) and give the government a bill. In theory, the 10% is their allowed profit.

      So how can they enlarge that 10% figure? Simple, jack the costs up. Lockheed Martin and SpaceX have roughly the same number of warm bodies on the factory floor. LM however, has tens of thousands of office staff which count as 'costs'. SpaceX has far, far fewer office bods. 10% of a small number is a small number but 10% of a freaking huge number is... a huge number.

      Case in point, the Atlas V which costs at least 180 million (it gets a bit more complicated 'cos there are several different versions of the Atlas V but MAVEN launched on an Atlas V 401 for 187 million) to build & launch versus SpaceX's Falcon 9 which is advertised at 60 million. Boeing got a large amount of money for their CST-100 capsule to take people to ISS while SpaceX was able to bid a much larger amount of money for the same service.

      I don't know but I'd imagine that Indian companies involved in spaceflight, and their recent Mars orbiter, are more like SpaceX, as many people on the factory floor as they need and only those office bods that are needed and much, much less like Lockheed Martin or Boeing.

  23. Dr Patrick J R Harkin

    OK, quick survey -

    Hands up anyone who DIDN'T immediately wind the video forward to the three minute mark. Anyone?

    1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: OK, quick survey -

      I sat through the whole thing, thinking "Something has got to happen soon".

      Can't do a hand, how about a thumb.

  24. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    Lucky escape for the pad

    A bit of a consolation is that the falling rocket just missed the pad and the tank farm and crashed onto an empty bit of sand, so the damage to the facilities looks mainly cosmetic:


    There are no signs of any rocket remaining though!

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