It sounds like something out of a spy novel — one of those Cold War-inspired thrillers with a cleverly complex plot infused with international intrigue.
That unmanned commercial supply rocket headed for the International Space Station when it blew up shortly after liftoff Tuesday night was powered by modified engines built by Soviet-era scientists and technicians decades ago.
Investigators are just now combing through the wreckage and the data from the failed launch, and they haven’t indicated that those Soviet-built, American-modified engines are to blame for the explosion. But the Washington Post reports that officials will certainly be looking at the possibility.
The tale of the engines that propelled the Antares rocket, which exploded in a spectacular ball of flame in Virginia Tuesday night, begins four decades ago, thousands of miles away, in the land of communism and Sputnik.
There, in the Soviet Union, rocket scientists conceived and built dozens of rocket engines meant to power Russian astronauts into the cosmos. But it didn’t work out that way.
Orbital Sciences, the U.S. company contracted to carry NASA payloads into space following cancellation of the shuttle program, reportedly bought the leftover Soviet rocket engines. The Post story describes how Orbital Sciences has used those engines in its new Antares rockets.
They were eventually brought to the United States in the 1990s for a California-based company looking to supply engines for the Atlas 5 rocket, but another engine was ultimately chosen, the news agency [Space Flight Now] said.
And the “NK-33 appeared to be left in the dust for a second time until Orbital Sciences came along.”
The executive vice president of Orbital Sciences, former NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson, said his company snapped up the old engines because they were unlike anything else available in the United States.
“As we went through testing, we did discover there were some effects of aging since they had been in storage for awhile, including some stress corrosion cracking,” Culbertson conceded at the time. “That’s what we [corrected] with weld repairs and other inspections.”
There was a previous incident involving one of the refurbished Soviet rocket engines, as reported by the website NASAspaceflight.com in May of this year:
One of the AJ-26 engines set to launch with a future Antares rocket has failed during testing at the Stennis Space Center on Thursday. Sources claim the engine “exploded” on a Stand located in the E Complex at the famous rocket facility.
By clicking on the video above, you can see the Antares rocket exploding only seconds after liftoff Tuesday evening from the NASA launch facility at Wallops Island, Virginia. There were no reports of injuries, though damage to the facility was extensive.
Advertisement - story continues below
Image Credit: youtube