Wallops Island readies for first launch of space station cargo since explosion

Launch pad at NASA Wallops could see first launch next year after rocket explosion in October 2014.

The crater — 50-feet long by 30-feet deep — is filled, a crack in a reinforced concrete wall beneath the launch pad is repaired and a set of stairs blown away by the blast has been replaced.

The only signs that a rocket carrying a load of cargo bound for the International Space Station exploded seconds after liftoff more than year ago are a few black streaks of charring, one marking the face of a 310-foot water tower overlooking the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport and the Atlantic Ocean.

The launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility is ready to resume sending rockets back into space, said officials from NASA; Orbital ATK, a NASA contractor hired for space station resupply missions; and the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, which owns and operates the spaceport, on Thursday. After a test in March, Orbital ATK expects to launch a batch of equipment and supplies from Wallops to the space station in May or June.

The explosion that lit up the evening sky over the Eastern Shore on Oct. 28, 2014, caused $15 million in damage to the launch pad, not counting the lost $200 million Antares rocket and its cargo.

"It's been a monumental task putting things back together," said Bill Wrobel, director of the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, about 9 miles south of the Maryland line on the Delmarva Peninsula.

The repair job was critical, he said — the spaceport is one of four U.S. facilities licensed to send a rocket into orbit.

It's also valuable because two other space station supply missions carried out by California company SpaceX and by Russia have failed since the explosion.

While NASA and its contractors have developed backup plans to get cargo to the station and there is plenty on board the orbiting spacecraft to sustain astronauts, the Wallops launch pad gives officials a key option and flexibility if they find a mission needs to be moved up.

"It's critical we keep that cadence with regular delivery to the space station," said Dave Hastman, deputy director of Orbital ATK's Cygnus program, the line of cargo spacecraft used in the missions.

The Dulles, Va.-based company expects to make at least three trips to the space station in 2016, including a second from Wallops in October and a launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., as well.

The repairs to the launch pad included work on anything with blast or heat damage, said Dale Nash, executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority. The pad itself was spared significant damage from the exploding rocket and its burning fuel, which fell to the pad's northside, creating the huge crater.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and officials from NASA and Orbital ATK announced in August they would split the costs of the repairs.

The pad stands on a base of 50 tons of reinforced concrete, which is vital even when everything in a launch goes right, he said.

"Just the flyaway itself is a pretty good blast," Nash said.

The Cygnus, the spacecraft aboard the exploding rocket, landed in a man-made pond near the crater, he said, much of its contents intact. It had been carrying 5,000 pounds of food, science experiments and other supplies.

The crater where the exploding rocket landed needed significant remediation to remove the remaining rocket fuel, essentially kerosene. Contaminated soil had to be removed before it could be filled.

The repaired launch pad looks much like the old one, but officials did improve it, installing new systems needed to support even larger Antares rockets. There's also a scattering of new narrow pipes sticking up out of the ground — wells monitoring for any contamination that environmental cleanup crews may have missed.

"It's as close to a brand new pad as it's ever been," said Mike Pinkston, general manager and vice president of Orbital ATK's Antares program.

In a warehouse about a mile from the launch pad, Orbital ATK engineers are preparing equipment.

On either side of the warehouse are two of the towering cylinders that will carry the engines, fuel and cargo — one for a "hot fire" test in March and the other for the first mission to launch from the damaged pad a few months later. In a corner are two brand new RD-181 engines, delivered last week, Pinkston said. The two components of the Cygnus spacecraft are on track to arrive at the warehouse in March.

They have been working for months to repair and refurbish the structure that carries and erects the rocket, also damaged in the explosion.

Some changes are coming to the space station resupply mission. The Antares rockets are getting new engines with more thrust, allowing them to carry 25 percent more cargo into space, Pinkston said. That's needed to accommodate a new, larger version of the Cygnus spacecraft.

At the time of the failed launch, the cargo missions were the responsibility of Orbital Sciences Corp. The contractor completed a $4.5 billion merger with defense contractor Alliant Techsystems Inc. in February.

NASA hired Orbital and SpaceX for International Space Station resupply missions in 2008, ordering eight flights valued at $1.9 billion from Orbital and a dozen flights valued at $1.6 billion from SpaceX. The contracts were set to last through 2016. The contractors took over the work ahead of the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

Orbital had completed two of its resupply missions before the October 2014 accident.

Since then, a Russian spacecraft carrying space station supplies was lost in April when it began spinning out of control in low Earth orbit. In June, a SpaceX rocket exploded two and a half minutes after liftoff. The California-based company headed by Elon Musk successfully completed six missions between October 2012 and April 2015.

It's still not clear how the accident at Wallops occurred. NASA investigators suggested several possible explanations, including problems with elements of the rocket's AJ-26 engine known as turbopumps or interference from foreign debris. Orbital has blamed the turbopumps but said a Russian manufacturer is responsible for the glitch.

Pinkston declined to discuss any lessons the contractor learned after investigating the accident.

"I think we have a pretty good idea of what happened," he said, adding that "corrective actions" have been taken.

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