A few hours ago, an Antares rocket operated by private spaceflight company Orbital Sciences exploded just seconds after it launched from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
Almost immediately after the rocket erupted in a fireball, sending out a blast that shook the area, the flight controller calling the shots calmly instructed the launch team to stay at their desks and to follow contingency procedures.
If it seemed like the crew were prepared for this disaster, it's because they were. Contingency planning is a requirement for any sort of space travel. But in Orbital Sciences' case, this kind of thing has happened before.
In 2009, and again in 2011, rockets operated by Orbital Sciences failed after launch. In the 2009 case it cost NASA a $273 million satellite. In 2011, the lost cargo was NASA's $424 million Glory satellite. Rather than fall in a blaze of fire, in both cases the Taurus XL rockets had trouble with their nose cones. In both cases, the rockets pitched into the southern Pacific Ocean.
Under contract to NASA, the Orbital Sciences rocket was carrying a lengthy list of supplies to the International Space Station, including food and water, as well as scientific equipment and satellites. There's another rocket (launched by Russia) going up tomorrow that is also bearing supplies to the ISS, so it's doubtful the astronauts aboard the station are in any imminent risk.
Orbital Sciences is a relatively old name in the private spaceflight arena. Founded in 1982, says Wired, by 2012 the company already had as many as 60 launches under its belt.
The Antares rocket that exploded in today's incident, however, was relatively new. The Antares rocket had its first successful flight just over a year ago, says NASA Spaceflight. The Antares craft, however, were built using refurbished Russian rocket engines that had originally been designed and built more than 40 years ago.
As astronomer and writer Phil Plait is careful to note over a Slate, we have no idea yet what is responsible for the failure of today's Antares launch, but there's a good bet these old engines are going to get an extra skeptical look.