Teams investigate failure of unmanned rocket off Virginia coast

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(CNN) — Teams of investigators were out at daybreak Wednesday examining damage to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility after an unmanned rocket exploded shortly after launch on the Virginia coast, NASA spokeswoman Rachel Kraft told CNN via email. NASA is warning people in the area not to touch debris if they find any.

The Antares rocket, built by NASA contractor Orbital Sciences Corp., and its Cygnus cargo spacecraft “suffered a catastrophic failure” shortly after liftoff Tuesday evening, the company said. The crash caused a huge fire and scattered debris over a large area.

Orbital Sciences told CNN it would issue a statement on the status of the investigation later Wednesday.

Officials say no one was injured or killed in the explosion, but NASA says debris may be scattered around the launch area and some may have fallen into the ocean.

The public is being warned to forget about grabbing up rocket debris as souvenirs. “It had a lot of hazardous materials on board that people should not be looking for or wanting to collect souvenirs over,” said Frank Culbertson, a former NASA astronaut and now a manager at Orbital Sciences Corp. “If you find anything that washes ashore in the local area or came down on your farm or in your yard … definitely do not touch it and keep people away from it.”

“There may be a possibility of debris washing up onto some of the beaches into some of the areas surrounding the island,” Bill Wrobel, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, said a news conference Tuesday. If people do find any debris, they’re being urged to call NASA at 757-824-1295.

NASA says teams started assessing damage to Wallops at daylight Wednesday.

“Damage was contained to kind of the south end of Wallops Island,” Wrobel said. “That’s predominately where many of the pieces came down.”

‘You see a big fireball’

The rocket lifted off at 6:22 p.m. ET, but about six seconds after launch, there was an explosion and the rocket fell to the ground, engulfed in a huge fireball.

It seemed to be going perfectly when Ed Encina saw the launch brighten up the sky from his vantage point about 3 miles away.

“And then, all of a sudden, you see a big fireball,” said Encina, a Baltimore Sun reporter.

He recalled a loud boom that caused “your feet (to) shake a little bit,” as well as flames enveloping a roughly 100-yard area around the launchpad in a marshy area with brush.

CNN iReporter Dymetria Sellers, who watched from a drawbridge because the NASA visitors station was full, recalled a “breathtakingly beautiful” sight when the rocket ascended, followed by mass confusion as flames lit up the early nighttime sky moments later.

“About 30 seconds later, we could hear and feel two booms reach us, and it was apparent the rocket had exploded,” she said.

Mark Kelly, a former NASA astronaut, said such a colossal fire was to be expected after the launch failure.

“It takes a lot of propellant to take a spacecraft of that size moving 25 times the speed of sound,” Kelly told CNN, explaining how fast the rocket should have gone on its way to the space station. “So when it fails, it’s usually pretty catastrophic.”

Orbital Sciences will lead the investigation into the explosion. NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration will assist.

“What we know so far is pretty much what everybody saw on the video,” Culbertson said. “The ascent stopped, there was some, let’s say disassembly, of the first stage, and then it fell to Earth. … We don’t really have any early indications of exactly what might have failed, and we need some time to look at that.”

They’ll examine debris and review video of the launch and telemetry from the spacecraft. “We have reams and reams of data that comes down from the rocket during launch,” Culbertson said.

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