I occasionally like to watch live feeds of various space exploration-related things-- I follow NASA and the Canadian Space Agency on Twitter and they often post live videos of launches, various craft docking at the ISS and so on. So I was actually watching the live feed of the Antares lifting off tonight, expecting to watch a little-heralded, unmanned supply rocket take off, think "cool!" and be on my way. I didn't actually realize what was happening at first-- I thought to myself, "gee, is there always that much fire on the ground? Are there trees or something on fire?" Nope: it exploded, which is pretty obvious upon a re-watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHMmMgdcOSU
By far the most affecting video, though, is this one, taken at the press site: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZ0SgAU9LXI
It's odd; it feels very different to have watched this happen in real time than it would to just find out about it afterwards. Ultimately, although this was a failure, it was also a success. According to reports, a person with the title of "flight termination officer" performed their job admirably, and triggered the self-destruct before the rocket actually hit the ground. How incredible: a rocket ship turned into a giant fireball, and nobody was even injured (although I would expect some ringing in the ears tomorrow for those press guys... hope they were wearing earplugs.) In a gratifying gesture of transparency, the live feed was left running long after the explosion and a press conference scheduled a few hours later-- not that there was much information available, since there's still burning rocket fuel on the ground and thus not much opportunity to collect data. But the data will be collected, and space flights will be made safer because of this incident.
I was reminded tonight of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's book, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, which I read a few months ago. He discusses extensively the way that NASA learns from its mistakes almost obsessively, debriefing and improving upon every detail of even a seemingly successful operation. So, in a way, the Antares explosion is a gift. It has pointed out a fatal flaw in, well, something, which can now be investigated and fixed, all with no loss of life. Perhaps it would even be accurate to say that the Antares explosion saved lives, if they can now prevent whatever happened today from happening on manned flights.
So, congratulations to Orbital Sciences Corporation and NASA on an unsuccessful, but necessary, launch. I look forward to watching more launches in the future.