VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE — A rocket carrying a pair of NASA and commercial satellites and cremated remains of 50 people failed during launch and apparently fell into the Indian Ocean on Friday.
The Taurus rocket veered from its intended flight path around the time of first-stage separation, then appeared to right itself and continue south over the Pacific.
A investigation board was being established by the rocket maker, Orbital Sciences Corp., to determine the cause of the failure, said NASA spokesman Ed Campion, spokesman for Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
NASA lost its ozone-monitoring QuikTOMS satellite at a cost of $50 million, including $11 million for its share of the launch. Orbital Imaging Corp. lost its OrbView-4 satellite.
Flight managers believe the problem was associated with the staging process and that they received enough data from the rocket to pinpoint the cause, Campion said.
Although the failure came in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the United States, sabotage was not under consideration.
“There really is no reason to suspect any kind of sabotage,” Campion said.
“Absolutely not,” added Orbital Sciences spokesman Barron Beneski.
The Taurus reached an orbit 266 miles high and could have placed the satellites there but lacked the proper velocity, causing the satellites to re-enter the atmosphere, he said.
OrbView-4 was to have been placed in orbit about 11 1/2 minutes after launch, followed within three minutes by NASA’s QuikTOMS.
Instead, they apparently hit the water northeast of Madagascar, Campion said.
“They were essentially low and slow,” he said
It was the first failure of Orbital Sciences’ four-stage Taurus in six launches since 1994.
Celestis Corp., a Houston company that launches small capsules of human remains into space for $5,300 apiece, had portions of ashes of 50 people riding on the rocket.
Shortly after launch, chief executive Charles Chafer declared a success for Celestis, then learned that things had gone wrong and that the ashes were likely scattered at sea.
“We like everything else, appear to have gone into the ocean,” he said.
Families of the deceased are repeatedly made aware of the risk and are asked to provide a second sample of cremated remains for a second attempt free of charge should a launch fail, Chafer said.
Orbital Imaging Corp.’s OrbView-4 satellite was designed to snap high-resolution images of the Earth for sale. Its view was sharp enough to see things a yard wide.
Although cash-strapped, the Dulles, Va., company claims a $400 million backlog of orders.
The company has two other satellites, but neither provides imagery as sharp as that designed into the OrbView-4.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s QuikTOMS satellite was the fifth in a series of NASA instruments designed to keep tabs on ozone levels in the upper atmosphere since 1978.
The TOMS — “total ozone mapping spectrometer” — instruments are best known for their monitoring of the ozone hole that opens up over Antarctica each spring.
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