Wallops Launch Site Spared Major Damage

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WASHINGTON —A launch site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia sustained some damage in the Oct. 28 failure of an Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket, but company officials said the complex escaped major damage.

“Based on the preliminary inspections that were conducted this morning at Wallops Island, it appears that the launch pad complex itself was spared from any major damage,” Orbital Chief Executive David W. Thompson said in an Oct. 29 conference call with financial analysts.

In a statement issued late Oct. 29, the company confirmed that assessment. “The overall findings indicate the major elements of the launch complex infrastructure, such as the pad and fuel tanks, avoided serious damage, although some repairs will be necessary,” the company stated.

A separate statement from NASA late Oct. 29 provided more details about the initial review of Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA Wallops. In the statement, NASA said there was damage to the transporter erector launcher, the platform that supports the rocket as it is transported to the launch pad in the horizontal position, then erects it vertically for launch. NASA also reported damage to lightning suppression rods surrounding the launch pad. The agency did not describe the extent of the damage to either the transporter or the lightning rods in the statement.

In an Oct. 30 statement, Orbital said investigators had found some evidence of damage to pipes that run between fuel tanks at the launch site and the launch mount, where the Antares rocket is erected for launch. Neither the tanks nor the launch mount, though, appeared to be significantly damaged.

“After up close visual inspections by the safety team, it still appears the launch site itself avoided major damage,” the company said in the Oct. 30 statement.

In addition to the damage to the pad itself, NASA said there was some damage to support buildings in the vicinity of the pad, in the form of broken windows and imploded doors. A sounding rocket launcher near the Antares launch pad and other buildings closest to the pad suffered the most damage.

Speaking at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, Oct. 29, William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that nitrogen, oxygen and kerosene tanks near the launch pad were holding pressure after the accident.

In addition, the Horizontal Integration Facility, the hangar where Antares is mated with the cargo-carrying Cygnus spacecraft that makes the deliveries to the international space station, is unharmed. The facility is more than a kilometer away from the pad and was outside of the blast zone, Gerstenmaier said.

Orbital executives confirmed on the conference call that the Horizontal Integration Facility and other Cygnus processing facilities at Wallops were not damaged in the Antares explosion.

NASA cautioned in the statement that a full assessment of the damage to the launch site, and the time and expense to repair the damage, will take weeks. “In the coming days and weeks ahead, we’ll continue to assess the damage on the island and begin the process of moving forward to restore our space launch capabilities,” Bill Wrobel, director of NASA Wallops, said in the agency’s statement.

Orbital, in its separate statement, also said that additional evaluation is needed to determine what repairs are needed and the schedule for completing them. The company expects insurance to cover the cost of those repairs.

“The cost of any necessary facility repairs is also reimbursable by insurance,” Orbital Chief Financial Officer Garrett Pierce said in the call with financial analysts Oct. 29. “Hopefully, repairs will not be extensive.”

 

Dan Leone contributed to this article from Huntsville, Alabama.

 

Twitter: @jeff_foust

Email: [email protected]

 

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