I live in Virginia's Piedmont, in a region of rolling hills about 150 miles from the coast. According to maps provided by Orbital Sciences regarding its launches of Antares rockets from Wallops Island on Virginia's Eastern Shore, I'm in an area where the ascending rocket should be visible approximately three minutes after liftoff.
For a daytime launch earlier this year, I attempted to catch a glimpse from High Bridge, the centerpiece of High Bridge Trail State Park. It's a bridge about 120 feet high that stretches for about a half a mile across the Appomattox River Valley. It stands above the trees and boasts a clear view of the sky. On July 13, 2014, when Orbital-2 lifted off to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, I picked a spot on the bridge. I watched NASA's video stream of the launch on a cell phone and tried to find the rocket in the sky. My efforts proved fruitless thanks to a bank of clouds obstructing my view toward the eastern horizon.
By contrast, Orbital-3 was scheduled to launch at night. I thought that might make the rocket more visible, but it added a complication. Virginia's state parks officially close at dusk, so I knew High Bridge wouldn't be available as a viewing platform. In preparation for the launch originally scheduled for October 27, 2014, I scouted the countryside trying to find a spot with an unobstructed eastern horizon. Normally, I love all the trees that beautify the Virginia countryside, but they did pose a challenge for identifying a location from which to watch the launch. Finally, I found the perfect place from a public road that passes through Sailor's Creek Battlefield State Park.
Skies were crystal clear that Monday, the day the rocket was supposed to launch. Unfortunately, a boat strayed into a hazard area so the launch didn't take place. I was rewarded instead by a beautiful view of the space station itself as it passed overhead.
My husband, my son, and I returned the next night for the second launch attempt. We set up a pair of 15x70 binoculars on a tripod (we normally use them for astronomical viewing) and opened NASA TV's video streaming of the event on a cell phone. We felt the excitement and counted along with the final seconds.
Ignition. We watched the video as the rocket started to lift up and out of the field of view. My son turned his attention away from the tiny screen and started scanning the sky with the binoculars. I momentarily looked up, a reflexive reaction. I knew the rocket wouldn't be visible yet.
The voice accompanying the video said something was "108 percent." That sounded good, better than good. Then, something else was "nominal." Although nominal didn't sound all that great, it didn't sound like a word that implied catastrophe. I looked back at the video stream in time to see what appeared to be an explosion on the launch pad after the rocket had lifted. I wondered whether or not the blast had affected the rocket.
The voice that accompanied the video stream asked launch personnel to remain at their consoles. That seemed a little odd. I would have expected them to be doing just that so few seconds after a launch. Then, some of the chatter that accompanied the video stream seemed to indicate that the rocket might have been destroyed on the launch pad. I was confused. The portion of the video stream I had seen made it look as if it had lifted clear.
Around two minutes after launch, while I was still trying to understand the comments that accompanied a video of a growing fire on the ground, my son caught a glimpse through the binoculars of something in the sky. It was glowing orange and moving along a trajectory similar to what we expected the rocket to take, although it was a bit farther north and dimmer. I breathed a sigh of relief because I thought that meant that the rocket itself was unharmed in whatever disaster had befallen the pad.
The three of us continued to watch the glowing orange smear in the sky for two more minutes, our confusion mounting as the broadcast voices seemed to be saying that the rocket had been lost. Eventually, the glow we could see in the binoculars emitted a sparkling spray and went out. I commented that although I had seen rocket launches before from Cape Kennedy, I had never seen a stage separation anything like that. We waited to see if the second stage would fire. It never did.
We talked about the fact that we had expected the rocket to be brighter. It never achieved a brightness that could be seen with the unaided eye. If it hadn't been for our binoculars, we would have seen nothing. We expected that the rocket might have created a contrail, but there was no contrail. We were surprised to have spotted it two minutes after launch instead of three.
We turned our attention back to the video, and the news was shocking. We watched replays of videos including views from cameras with vantage points other than the one in the original stream we saw. They made it abundantly clear that although the rocket lifted, it immediately exploded and its pieces fell back to the ground creating a larger, second explosion. There never was a rocket in the sky. News reports after the failed launch referred to the event as a "catastrophic anomaly," seemingly soft words for such a major explosion.
So what did we see? We watched more videos. We listened to the hastily arranged NASA press conference later in the evening. We read news reports and talked to other people who had been trying to spot the launch from different places along the east coast.
We still don't know what we saw, but here's our best guess: We think perhaps the second explosion sent some debris high up into the sky. Maybe it included some of the solid fuel intended to power the second stage. Perhaps it was enough to burn for a couple of minutes. After that time, it simply burned out or possibly reached an altitude with insufficient oxygen to feed the flames.
If you can offer any explanations or if you want to share your own experiences of viewing this "catastrophic anomaly," please leave replies in the comments section or visit us on Facebook.
While I understand the disappointment and the enormous financial losses that accompany this calamity, I join with those who also offer a sigh of thanksgiving that the flight was unmanned and that no one on the ground was injured. I wish Orbital Sciences and NASA efficiency, clarity, and wisdom as they try to sort out the pieces and plot a course forward.