WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — Every time NASA takes photographers and reporters on a bus ride out to the press site here, the designated public affairs officer, or PAO, recites a standard warning about the risks you are tacitly accepting — including the potential for death or injury from falling debris and toxic fumes from rocket propellant — in exchange for getting a closer view of the launch. If something goes wrong, leave everything and go immediately to the bus.
Do not stop to pack up your cameras and laptops. Just get on the bus, because PAO needs you to leave the two-mile press observation site now, before any debris has a chance to fall on your head or a billowing plume of toxic smoke rolls in to trash your lungs.
It’s standard CYA language that nobody really takes seriously.
Tuesday afternoon was no different. Until what promised to be a spectacular sunset launch went bad just after Antares’ 6:22 p.m. liftoff.
Not long before, as we headed out to the press site two miles from the pad, some people chuckled at the PAO’s instructions to start moving to the bus rather than waiting for word to get moving if the launch goes bad .
“Don’t wait for that extra shot. You can always get another camera,” I recall the PAO telling us on our way to the press viewing area, hopeful we’d see a launch.
Little did we know.
Prior to Tuesday, I had seen four successful Antares launches from Wallops, plus a couple of Minotaur flights.
Orbital Sciences’ third paid cargo run to the international space station started the same as all the other Antares launches. It looked fine for a handful of seconds, then seemed to struggle. I had trouble keeping my camera focused on the rocket; it didn’t seem to move smoothly upward and there were unexpected flashes. I started to pull my head up from my camera’s viewfinder just in time to feel a heat flash and see the first fireball.
The rocket’s first stage, in NASA-speak, spontaneously disassembled. “Blew up,” is how the rest of us would put it.
I flashed back to the PAO’s instructions to move back to the bus in case of an obvious launch malfunction. Clearly, the fireball falling onto Wallops Island qualified, so I grabbed my camera and tripod by the neck and started trotting back to the bus in rapid fashion. Yes, ma’am, I remember you told me to get to the bus. No ma’am, I was too panic-stricken to remember to abandon my camera and cheap tripod.
The aftershock of the explosion slammed into me, truly indicating that, yes, it was really, really time to go back to the bus. By the time I got there, a line of people were calmly — and what seemed to me to be way too s-l-o-w-l-y — climbing aboard the nice safe bus, the PAO prodding everyone to keep moving.
I looked back at Pad 0A, now engulfed in flame with a large and ugly cloud of coal-black smoke rising into the twilight. It took an eternity for everyone to get onboard. The PAO did another headcount and the bus finally pulled out.
I looked out the window to see the southern half of Wallops burning brightly, a long row of orange flames extending from the pad northward, clearly visible through the tinted glass.
Adrenaline and shock wore off as everyone took personal inventory. Those of us who had shot video or stills looked at our camera backs and smartphones trying to spot the moment when the Antares launch went bad, while the photographers who had placed remote cameras at Pads 0A were mentally calculating the dollar value of gear being melted into slag.
Pulling into the parking lot at the NASA Wallops visitor’s center, a PAO put everything into perspective: Nobody got hurt. No injuries on a night when a launch went so wrong is a win. With smoke and fire covering Wallops Island, NASA and Orbital needed to count the wins.