BERLIN – Shortly after take-off early last Friday morning, a suborbital rocket launched from NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility veered off its projected course and had to be destroyed, showering its remains in the Atlantic Ocean and desolate coastal areas near the facility.
The suborbital rocket carrying two NASA hypersonic experiments was launched as planned around 5:10 a.m. last Friday, but something went wrong about 20 seconds into the flight and the rocket had to be destroyed in flight from the ground. Much of the debris landed in the Atlantic Ocean, but some fell on the south end of Wallops Island in a designated hazard area. Still more debris floated south and was later recovered by the facility’s recovery team on uninhabited beaches and marsh areas south of the facility.
There were early unconfirmed reports of some debris landing in populated areas near the Wallops Flight Facility, but NASA officials said in a statement they believed the remains of the rocket fell in the ocean. Nonetheless, the agency issued a rather ominous warning about the potential for some debris being discovered on land.
“This debris could be hazardous,” the statement reads. “People who think they may have encountered rocket debris are advised not to touch it and to report it to the Wallops Emergency Operations Center.”
The suborbital rocket was a prototype designed by Alliant Techsystems (ATK) of Salt Lake City, but it was built by the private sector company’s facility in Elkton, Md. The company invited NASA to attach $17 million in hypersonic experiments to the rocket at no cost because it was a test flight, according to the statement.
Wallops Flight Facility spokesman Keith Koehler said this week there was no indication there was anything wrong with the rocket or the launch plan leading up to lift-off. However, it became clear just 20 seconds in that the rocket had to be destroyed for safety reasons.
“The countdown was good and there were no problems,” he said. “Everything was right on schedule. However, about 20 seconds in, the rocket veered off the path it was supposed to follow and went beyond the safety limitations and the launch had to be terminated.”
NASA has launched a full-scale investigation into the ill-fated launch and is working closely with ATK to determine what went wrong. Outside experts are expected to join in the investigation.
ATK officials have said the problem may be related to the unusual trajectory and altitude required for one of the experiments it was carrying. NASA officials initially said the rocket was destroyed at an altitude of about 11,000 feet, but an updated statement said mission was aborted at closer to 8,500 feet and about 3,000 feet downrange from the Wallops Flight Facility.
Thousands of rockets of various sizes and ranges have been launched at Wallops over the years and not all of them have been successful, according to Koehler, who said this week complex safety precautions are in place for every launch at the facility.
“We are a test range and this was the first launch of this vehicle,” he said. “Sometimes things happen. They call it rocket science for a reason, and one of our most important jobs we have is to protect the public. That’s why we have detailed plans that we practice over and over again.”
NASA officials said in a statement the ill-fated launch will cause the agency to review the public safety components of its operation.
“NASA is very disappointed in this failure, but has directed its focus on protecting public safety and conducting a routine confirmation of the effectiveness of its range safety operations,” the statement reads.
Koehler said last Friday’s aborted launch will not have any lasting effect on activity at the facility.
“This will have no impact on future launches at Wallops,” he said. “We’ll find out what went wrong, fix it and move on.”