The unmanned NASA rocket that exploded off the coast of Virginia seconds after takeoff earlier this week was deliberately destroyed after it became clear there was a technical problem, the company that owns it says.
The Antares rocket, operated by Orbital Sciences Corp., crashed on Tuesday six seconds after liftoff from a commercial launch pad in Wallops Island, Virginia.
The cause of the explosion has not been known yet but accident investigators are looking closely at a potential first-stage engine problem in the crashed rocket that was on its way to the International Space Station, a $100 billion research complex that hovers about 260 miles (418 km) above Earth.
The NASA-contracted company said on its website that evidence indicates the problem began in the rocket’s first-stage engine and that it “fell back to the ground impacting near, but not on, the launch pad.”
“Prior to impacting the ground, the rocket’s Flight Termination System was engaged by the designated official in the Wallops Range Control Center,” Orbital said.
The crash destroyed a cargo ship filled with 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg) of equipment and supplies for the International Space Station.
Frank Culbertson, the general manager of Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group, said the rocket and spacecraft together cost more than $200 million.
Culbertson lamented that there were currently no alternatives to its rocket engines, which were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“When you look at it there are not many other options around the world in terms of using power plants of this size, certainly not in this country, unfortunately,” he said after the crash.
NASA has been relying on private contractors to fill gaps in the US space program.
Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station and its six-person crew. Tuesday’s planned flight was to be its third resupply mission.