August 22, 2008

Suborbital Rocket Carrying NASA Experiments Crashes off Wallops Island

story was updated at 4:07 p.m. EDT.

An Alliant Techsystems (ATK) ALV-X1 suborbital rocket carrying two NASA
hypersonic flight experiments was destroyed by range officials shortly after its
Friday launch from the U.S. space agency's Wallops Flight Facility on
Virginia's eastern shore.

officials said no injuries or property damage were immediately reported following
the launch failure
. While most of the debris from the rocket is thought to
have fallen into the Atlantic Ocean, NASA said it had received conflicting
reports of debris being sighted on land.

is very disappointed in this failure but has directed its focus on protecting
public safety and conducting a comprehensive investigation to identify the root
cause," NASA said in a press release. "NASA is assembling a
multidiscipline team, along with the rocket's maker Alliant Tech
Systems, or ATK, of Salt Lake City, to begin the investigation

The launch
occurred at 5:10 a.m. EDT (0810 GMT) after an extremely smooth countdown,
mission managers said.  

Kent Rominger,
vice president for advanced programs at ATK Space Systems, told reporters the
experimental rocket lifted off
as expected but veered off course, prompting
range officials to trigger the vehicle command destruct safety mechanism 27
seconds into the flight. Rominger said the rocket had reached an altitude of
approximately 11,000 feet to 12,000 feet (3,300 meters to 3,600 meters) by the
time it was destroyed

The launch
marked the first and only flight of the ALV-X1, a rocket ATK built and paid for
to test various proprietary technologies Rominger declined to identify. NASA's
Hypersonic Boundary Layer Transition (HYBOLT) and the Sub-Orbital Aerodynamic
Re-entry Experiment (SOAREX) payloads were on board the nearly 55-foot (17-meter)
tall rocket.

experiment, developed by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, was
aimed at studying the effects of airflow and heating on hypersonic vehicles
designed to fly at velocities faster than eight times the speed of sound.

Ames Research Center in California designed the SOAREX experiment, which
consisted of three separate probes that were expected to be released after
HYBOLT was jettisoned, then plummet back toward Earth to evaluate new
techniques for spacecraft reentry.

One of the
three probes belonged to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and carried prototype
receiver and transmitter for use in tracking objects in ocean recovery, NASA
officials said. There are currently no launch-worthy spares for the
experiments, they added.

Alonzo, director of NASA's fundamental aeronautics program, said the agency had
spent about $17 million on this mission, including $11 million for the two
payloads and the remaining $6 million for system integration, range fees and
other expenses.

“We knew
the risks of launching payloads on a first of a kind rocket and we acknowledged
those from the beginning of the development of these payloads,” Alonzo

warning that the debris could be hazardous and that anybody who thinks they may
have encountered rocket debris is advised not to touch it and to call the
Wallops Emergency Operations center at 757-824-1300.
Senior Editor Tariq Malik contributed to this report from New York City.