Doomed Rocket's Engine Was Ancient, a 'Joke'
Leftover from Soviet program in '60s, '70s; crabcakes aboard tragically burnt
By Matt Cantor,  Newser User
Posted Oct 29, 2014 9:18 AM CDT

(Newser) – The cause of yesterday's rocket explosion over Wallops Island, Va., remains under investigation: While a tweet from Orbital Sciences refers to a "vehicle anomaly," other reports have focused on aging rocket engines. They were built in the 1960s and 1970s to send Soviet cosmonauts to the moon, the Guardian reports. Why use them? "There are not many other options around the world in terms of using power plants of this size, certainly not in this country," says Frank Culbertson, an exec with Orbital Sciences. Concerns about the engines have previously been raised, both by Congress and rival SpaceX. "Their rocket honestly sounds like the punchline to a joke," boss Elon Musk said in 2012. A similar engine exploded during a test in May, Reuters reports, but the rocket has taken off four times before without accident. Other developments:

  • Culbertson says things appeared to be going wrong with the 14-story rocket within about 10 seconds of liftoff—it's just not clear what. "We will understand what happened—hopefully soon—and we'll get things back on track."
  • Though no lives were lost in the explosion, hundreds of millions of dollars in cargo was, the Guardian notes, pointing to "classified cryptographic" equipment. Nothing "absolutely critical" is gone, says a NASA official. But a meteor tracker, 32 mini-satellites, and a school experiment testing the growth of pea shoots in space were also lost, USA Today adds.
  • Orbital Sciences was insured to the tune of more than $200 million, Culbertson tells the AP. The company's stock took an after-hours hit of 15%.
  • And in a tragic turn of events for one Marylander aboard the ISS: The crabcakes he was supposed to get are presumably burned beyond recognition.