The news: The incredible explosion of the unmanned Antares rocket on a Virginia launch pad this week was not as accidental as it looked.
According to CNN, a NASA official in the control room during the launch made a very gutsy judgment call to remotely detonate the rocket seconds into its planned launched from from the Wallops Flight Facility on Tuesday evening. Rather than risk the malfunctioning rocket continuing its ascent and possibly falling back to Earth in a populated area, Orbital Systems Corp. hit the self-destruct button
As the rocket took off with some 5,000 pounds of supplies and scientific equipment for the International Space Station, NASA officials spotted a malfunction both serious and visible enough to warrant the immediate activation of Antares' flight termination system. National Geographic's Brad Scriber writes that the flight safety officer and range safety officer tasked with deciding whether to detonate the rocket prematurely had to make the decision in mere seconds.
Retired astronaut Mark Kelly told CNN it was the correct decision, describing it as necessary to protect civilian lives. No one was injured during the incident.
The background: Scientists haven't yet determined the reason Antares malfunctioned so spectacularly, but have suggested the likely culprit was the rocket's inclusion of refurbished, archaic parts from the Soviet era. Space.com's Mike Wall writes:
Antares' first stage uses two AJ26 engines, which are refurbished variants of the NK-33 built by the Soviet Union for its ill-fated N-1 moon rocket during the height of the space race.
Some of the criticism long predates this week's accident. In 2012, for example, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said Antares "honestly sounds like the punchline to a joke."
"It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the '60s," Musk told Wired magazine back then. "I don't mean their design is from the '60s — I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the '60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere."
Similar incidents are actually quite common. USA Today reports that dozens of launch pad disasters have happened over the past 57 years, although most are not catastrophic failures resulting in the death of ground crew or astronauts.
Why you should care: The private Antares rocket's failure demonstrates that rocket science remains incredibly difficult, and private companies' spaceflight programs may be set back years. Orbital Systems Corp. is likely out of the space race as far as ISS supply contracts go, and cost-saving practices like relying on old Russian rocket technology may have to be abandoned. But the silver lining is that NASA and its missions have likely only been minimally set back, though it will take weeks to figure out just what went wrong on the launchpad.