Memories of my youth: Failures in Space

I’m a child of the Space Age. I lived on Vandenberg AFB when it was still Cook AFB and they were still pouring concrete for the Atlas-C launchers. I worked summers during high school on Point Arguello Naval Missile Facility, before it became Vandenberg South, putting in drainage ditches for the SLC-6 launch facility, the one that never saw a shuttle. I once had a transporter carrying a Agena upper stage, the one for the Corona reconnaissance satellites, drive over my foot.

Those were the days when the US was rushing into space, and wasn’t quite sure how to do it. Launch failures were common. Sometimes the missile would fail at ignition (or before — one Titan I night-test I saw had the silo elevator fail and drop the loaded bird into the silo), sometimes early in the flight (when it was easier to see), and sometimes later, when the only evidence was the crazy dance of the contrail as the bird tore itself apart at the edge of space. At VAFB, we all knew when a launch was scheduled, and I would sometimes climb up on the roof of our Air Force family housing to watch. The very first launch I saw was an RAF Thor training launch. My mother chased my brother out of the shower, naked, so he could see it.

Yesterday’s failure of the Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares launcher hearkened back to those days.

So we start with the familiar cadences of a launch crew in the final stages of the countdown, marking off lines from the checklist. Ignition (at 2:54) looks good, and the bird clears the tower OK at (3:03). That’s when we start to hear the familiar, to me, crackling roar of the 734,000 pounds of thrust from the pair of NK-33 engines — five times what a Thor would generate. At about 3:08 on this vid, the exhaust plume brightens (as if the oxidizer pumps were overclocking), and then there’s an explosion at the base of the booster, at the top of the engine, near the pumps. The bird loses power and sinks back to the pad, possibly toppling to the left as it drops. It looks like the main explosion takes place just prior to impact, which probably means the RSO destroyed the booster just before it hit and destroyed itself. Hard to tell. The RSO might not have even seen the booster falling. He just knew from his readouts that it was doing something dangerous, and hit the destruct switch. The ball of fire is followed by the distance-delayed sound of the explosion, and we end with the LCO starting his post-launch-failure checklist.

OSC’s stock immediately dropped 16%, and you can be sure their competitors will start a jeremiad of all the reasons the contract should be canceled.

This failure doesn’t bother me, and it doesn’t scare me into selling OSC stock (if I owned any). I’ve seen it all before. This is spaceflight. This is the big rocket business. You learn from your mistakes. You keep going.


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2 Responses to “Memories of my youth: Failures in Space”

  1. John S Says:

    I remember it well, being chased outside naked to see the first launch at Vandenberg. Also the Titan explosion – thought it would knock the windows out of the house, whole place shook.

    It seemed like the first couple of years that the missiles blew up more often than not – typically destructed when they veered off course. And of course, liquid fuel is very touchy.

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