I was on top of the roof of Smith Hall at Towson University with four of my physics students. We were looking toward the southeast, toward NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Antares Rocket on its flight to the International Space Station. Although I had NASA TV playing on my iPhone, our eyes were trained on the horizon. In my experience I’ve found that NASA TV is anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds delayed. So we started scrutinizing the horizon as soon as the clock read 6:22 pm. By my guess, we should see the rocket emerge from the horizon even as we were listening to the final countdown play out on the phone.
But no rocket appeared.
I then heard something that sounded like a crackling sound coming from my iPhone. I looked down at the screen and saw this:
I’ll spare what I said next, but suffice to say it was not the sort of thing a professor would normally say in front of his students.
Realizing there wasn’t going to be a rocket rising over the horizon, we went downstairs to the classroom. I put NASA TV on as the students filed in for the class that was to begin at 7pm. I had given my students the “homework” assignment of trying to spot the rocket’s flight over the horizon; a timely assignment as we had discussed the physics of rockets and space flight last week.
I started class by filling them in on what had happened. I explained what little we knew and what we didn’t yet know. Needles to say, there were a lot of questions: Was there anyone on-board? Was anyone near the launch pad? Will they be able to launch from there again? Will the astronauts aboard the International Space Station have enough food?
Thankfully, I could answer the most important question — nobody was on-board the spacecraft, nor was anyone anywhere near the launch pad. In fact, NASA was reporting that all personnel were safe and accounted for. Thank goodness.
The students got to see a perspective of spaceflight that they probably hadn’t considered before — this stuff is difficult, challenging, and dangerous. Rockets have to unleash a tremendous amount of fuel as fast and with as much energy as possible. Only then can the spacecraft accelerate forward in reaction to the controlled explosion raging underneath it.
It’s a lot harder than it looks.
After I got home, I watched the news conference and shared some reactions on Twitter and Facebook. A lot of people are upset tonight and understandably so. Many man-years of hard work and effort were lost tonight, including the spacecraft, the rocket, and most of an entire launch complex.
But now the investigation is underway. It’s tempting to speculate what might have been the cause, but I’ll refrain from doing so here. There is a lot of data that will need to be examined, including telemetry, video, and even the scrap paper used by the launch team. And then there’s the physical debris that will need to be collected and scrutinized.
NASA and Orbital Sciences Corp. have their work cut out for them. But I’m also confident that they will find out what the problem is, correct it, and get back to flying again. In the meantime, I hope that my students and the public can use this as an opportunity to learn an important lesson:
There’s nothing routine about spaceflight.