The explosion of an unmanned Antares rocket on Tuesday evening near Wallops, Virginia made headlines worldwide. Destined for the International Space Station, it exploded just seconds after liftoff, while carrying Space Station supplies, experiments, and propelled by two very old Soviet engines.
The $200 Million Antares Orbital-3 launch was the third contracted launch for Orbital Sciences for NASA to the International Space Station. After Tuesday's explosion, investigators will take a look at the Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 engines, used to propel the ship. The AJ-26 was originally known as the NK-33 — developed and build by the Soviet Union in the 1970s for their failed moon exploration program. After the moon program was canceled, the engines were then mothballed for four decades, then more recently bought and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Orbital Science's Antares rocket, prior to the October 28th explosion (Getty Images)
Elon Musk, CEO of Orbital's competitor, SpaceX told Wired that use of the decades-old engines was one of "the pretty silly things going on in the market. They have a contract to resupply the International Space Station, but their rocket honestly sounds like the punchline to a joke." SpaceX designs its own rockets for their resupply missions, but Orbital had to rely on the old engines to meet their needs. Tuesday's event also called into question NASA's reliance upon outsourcing to private companies in order to perform missions for the U.S. space program.
The AJ-26 has been used successfully in other missions, but has not performed flawlessly over the history of its use. In 2011, an engine caught fire during a test. Then in May of this year, another engine exploded during a test, causing the delay of a resupply mission this summer. Orbital's next mission is currently scheduled for April of 2015, but their President, David Thompson said that will likely be delayed from three months to a year.