WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. -- The first attempt to launch a commercial rocket into orbit from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility ended in a spectacular failure yesterday when the 100-ton Conestoga rocket was blown apart 48 seconds after liftoff.
The spacecraft was about 10 miles high at the time of the failure and its destruction was visible for miles.
The rocket's designer and builder, EER Systems Inc. of Seabrook, Md., blamed the failure on a malfunctioning booster rocket.
EER Vice President Jim Hengle said the rocket appeared to rise normally, powered by four of the six strap-on boosters. But "we saw that one of the rocket engines wasn't working well."
In seconds, he said, two separate systems acted to destroy the rocket. One controlled by the spacecraft's own computers released the rocket's six strap-on solid-fuel boosters.
A NASA safety officer then pushed a button that broke the boosters apart, disabling them. The government space agency provided the staging area and tracking for the mission.
In a scene that appeared eerily reminiscent of the Challenger disaster, the 52-foot rocket blew into four big pieces, each marked by a bright yellow flame and with a trailing column of smoke. But this spacecraft was unmanned, and no injuries were reported.
Three of the four pieces made white corkscrew smoke trails in the blue sky as they wheeled over and headed down toward the sea.
About 100 people who had come to the NASA visitors' center to watch the launch reacted with an audible "Ohhhh." Thousands of people lined area roads or had stopped to watch the launch from nearby viewing sites.
In Ocean City, about 40 miles to the north, Petty Officer Chris Watkins of the Coast Guard Station said he looked south and saw at least two pieces of burning metal, with smoke trailing, fall into the ocean.
Petty Officer Watkins said his first thought was of the Challenger explosion in 1986. He said the station received telephone calls from as far away as North Carolina and Philadelphia, from people inquiring about the explosion.
"I didn't think it was a plane because it was too high up," he said.
The failure of the $20 million mission, called METEOR-1, was a major setback for EER, a long-time contractor for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. METEOR is an acronym for Multiple Experiment Transporter to Earth Orbit and Return.
It was the maiden flight for the EER-built Conestoga rocket, its METEOR satellite and a 865-pound recovery vehicle that was to have been returned to Earth 20 to 30 days after launch.
Through NASA's telescopic cameras, observers could see a fragment of the spacecraft falling beneath what appeared to be a shredded red-and-white parachute. EER's plans had called for returning six scientific experiments to Earth by parachute.
The payload was not expected to be recovered.
EER developed the vehicles at a cost of $75 million and signed up 14 commercial, governmental and university experiments to fly on the maiden voyage.
The launch took place at 6:04 p.m., just 4 minutes behind schedule. About 48 seconds into the flight, however, a single flame and column of smoke suddenly became four.
"We have vehicle failure," said Keith Koehler, the voice of Wallops launch control. "We do have vehicle failure at this time."
The explosion came less than 10 seconds before the first of Conestoga's six strap-on rocket boosters were scheduled to separate from the main engines.
NASA spokesman David E. Steitz said the rocket's pieces fell into the Atlantic 14 miles from the coast. Nothing landed on Assateague Island, as had been feared. "We know of no damage to property or persons at this time," he said.
Mr. Hengle said the reason for the rocket failure would not be known until telemetry data sent from the spacecraft during its flight can be studied.
"Things like this happen in American rocketry history. No matter how much you look at that thing in the wind tunnel, it all happens in the air," he said.
Nevertheless, he said, "I believe the vehicle is basically sound. We could not satisfy our 14 clients today, but I still think we made a significant stride forward."
Some of his company's losses will be covered by insurance, he said, but not all.
The Conestoga was the largest rocket ever launched from the Eastern Shore facility. It was to have reached an orbit 250 nautical miles, or 217 miles, above the Earth barely 9 minutes after liftoff.
It was the first orbital mission attempted from Wallops since 1985.