back to article Ex-Soviet engines fingered after Antares ROCKET launch BLAST

Speculation is rife that the Antares rocket accident at Wallops on Tuesday evening was caused by the 1960s-era Russian engines powering the craft, though the official investigations have only just begun. Aerial view of Wallops after Antares catastrophic launch failure Private space firm Orbital Sciences has already faced …

  1. Osgard Leach
    Mushroom

    Re. the picture;

    Given the budget I was expecting a slightly bigger crater. Almost disappointing.

    I've thrown parties that made more mess than that.

  2. stu 4

    Depressing

    That in 2014... they felt they had to (or could) use 55 year old engines...

    I mean WTF....

    1. TechnicianJack

      Re: Depressing

      I don't understand this either. Why you would spend all this money building a rocket and loading it with supplies, then using an antique engine to power it is beyond me.

      That's like a car manufacturer selling a new car with a second hand engine in it.

      1. phuzz Silver badge
        Go

        Re: Depressing

        If you're going for the car metaphor, it's like deciding to power your car with a factory fresh, small block V8. It's a known quantity, that's never had any wear, and it's very predictable.

        Also, designing new rocket engines is not easy, what with being your actual rocket science and all, so you might as well use one that's been designed by experts.

        1. herman Silver badge

          Re: Depressing

          These engines have a proven track record and are well known to explode spectacularly. So if spectacular explosions is your prime objective, then they sure are a good choice.

        2. Trigonoceps occipitalis

          Re: Depressing

          "what with being your actual rocket science and all"

          Rocket engineering, more difficult than F=ma.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Depressing

        "I don't understand this either. Why you would spend all this money building a rocket and loading it with supplies, then using an antique engine to power it is beyond me.

        That's like a car manufacturer selling a new car with a second hand engine in it."

        It's called cost-cutting. Companies do this because it's often more important to give shareholders huge dividends and their executives massive bonuses, than make a sound product.

        Just one of the perils of leaving mission-critical stuff to the private sector.

    2. karlp

      Re: Depressing

      The simple fact is, when working on projects you have to make decisions based on resources that are available _today_.

      If everyone waited for the next thing to be available before doing something, nothing would ever get done, and thus there would be no next thing.

      The engines, albeit 50+ years old, are solid. They have good engineering, a reasonable pedigree and just as important, there is an available supply.

      Would it be preferable to have a newer engine? In some ways absolutely. In other ways not at all. Doing something different in rocketry often has as many cons as pros.

      The simple fact is - rockets blow up. Not all the time, but enough that it isn't surprising. Seeing as the stack wasn't intended to be on course for human certification anyways, it's a bit whatever.*

      Hopefully they can get good telemetry and come to an actual conclusion on loss-cause. The only thing worse than loosing a launch is learning nothing from the process.

      Karl P

      *It's always sad to see so much work go up in flames, but one accepts it as an eventuality in that line of work.

      1. donaldinks

        Re: Depressing

        "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. The failure is currently under evaluation, although it may delay the next Antares launch that is tasked with lofting the the ORB-2 Cygnus to the International Space Station (ISS)."

        http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2014/05/antares-aj-26-engine-fails-stennis-testing/

        ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

        "The simple design and unique technological approach eliminates exotic materials and complex manufacturing processes, making the engines easy to operate and maintain. The dual AJ26 main engine system provides Orbital Sciences Corporation’s AntaresTM vehicle with better performance at a more affordable cost than existing engines in its thrust class.

        The engine was designed by renowned gas turbine design bureau, JSC Kuznetsov, located southeast of Moscow. Aerojet Rocketdyne modernized a gimbal block for thrust vectoring capability, gimbaling feedlines, new wiring harnesses and electrical circuitry, electromechanical valve actuators and instrumentation."

        http://www.rocket.com/aj26

        I am not blaming "Russian technology", per se...

        however,

        what I am saying is this, that Orbital Sciences Corp. bought outdated technology and "modified" it to "create"(quote from their own website...)

        "...a more affordable cost than existing engines in its thrust class."

        My simple point is the following:

        YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR.

        1. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge

          Re: Depressing

          YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR.

          This being, of course, almost always wrong. It's surprising and quite a bit depressing to see how many poor sods cling to that common misconception despite being proven litterally everyday how wrong it is. Yesterday's example on El Reg was the class action about the MacBook, with the lawyers' blurb reading that people paid a lot of money so they expected more reliability than from a cheaper machine (Ha!). I'm sure you spotted other examples throughout the day; if you have a computer such examples are shoved in your face all day long: our corporate email/collab "solution" is a right pile of shite but did cost millions. The person seated next to me does her math and plotting in expensive Excel while I use free Veusz. LaTeX vs MSWord anyone? My bike cost me 1500 euros and is more reliable and faster than the equivalent from Honda which at the same "age" costs roughly 3x that price. Yesterday I bought 12 rolls of no-name toilet paper which seems to wipe my bum as acceptably as the branded equivalent that costs 2x the price. I could litterally fill pages with examples like these taken only from this week.

          People just chose to ignore everything that doesn't fit their misconceptions it would seem.

          1. The last doughnut

            Re: Depressing

            Agreed but I would merely refine the assertion: You don't get what you don't pay for.

            The Russkies never made it to the moon because their efforts were based on this unreliable rocket engine.

            1. Mage Silver badge

              Re: Depressing: "made it to the moon"?

              Russia put rovers on moon.

              1. asdf Silver badge

                Re: Depressing: "made it to the moon"?

                >Russia put rovers on moon.

                And the US put 3 on Mars which ran for years which is more impressive. I thought the point was to say how much more impressive Russian scientists are than American. Honestly if not for Germans humans might not well have put anything past low earth orbit if even that. Remember the Russians are one of the best at "borrowing" know how from other countries even if they didn't outright borrow citizens from other countries like the US.

        2. Dan Paul

          Re: Depressing (I agree)

          The problem is they got exactly what they DIDN'T pay for.

          If you think you can pay little to nothing (especially for a rocket motor), don't expect to get much in return.

          1. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge

            @ Dan Paul Re: Depressing (I agree)

            The problem is they got exactly what they DIDN'T pay for. If you think you can pay little to nothing (especially for a rocket motor), don't expect to get much in return.

            I'm positive you have relevant rocket-related experience to back that up. Or not...

            There's a saying popular with people involved in arduous tech matters, I trust you've heard of it: "If it ain't broken, don't fix it"

            If you had read the posts in this thread posted by people who have more experience in this matter than both me and (especialy, apparently) you, you woud have noticed that it is even truer in the rocket design department (which should really be obvious for anyone with a brain, if I may).

            I'm sorry if it sounds a bit harsh. I am really tired with people who, by pure lack of gorm, equate price tag with quality. It doesn't work that way, it never has. You think saying -or writing- "you get what you pay for" makes you look like a no-bullshit value-for-money person, but it really makes you look liike a complete drooling moron who needs to be milked for all his/her company have. That's pretty much the WORST thing you can tell a vendor for example. It's instantly translated as "I'm utterly out of my depth, please sell me your most expensive shit, and double the price of that". As should be.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Depressingly political?

          "The engine was designed by renowned gas turbine design bureau, JSC Kuznetsov, located southeast of Moscow."

          So Russia(ns) designed and built the original base NK-33 engines, which were then modified. Some of the design mods appear to have been done by the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau somewhat further southeast of Moscow in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. So whether the issues between Ukraine, Moscow, the US etc may have played any part in this failure. Then if those political issues aren't resolved, if US companies will be able to rely on imported engines.

          But trying to blame Russia for this failure seems to make about as much sense as blaming Daimler AG for all car crashes.

        4. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

          YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR.

          You get what you pay for and then you check it out but even with careful assessment with every design, you end up relying on an explosive platform to draw out the explosion a reasonable time. There are so many things that can go wrong with a rocket engine, nearly all of them acoustics related any amount of error could creep in.

          Not least of the likely failures may have concerned the cryogenic effects on the unique crystal structure that made the design so fantastic all those years ago. Wouldn't it be nice if they could prove the cost to the integrity of the motor was caused by the stupidity of the pleasure boaters causing the scrubbed launch?

          If they can prove it, can they sue?

      2. Irongut

        Re: Depressing

        "The engines, albeit 50+ years old, are solid. They have good engineering, a reasonable pedigree and just as important, there is an available supply."

        The engines don't exactly have a great track record. It seems they blew up in testing every time the Russians used them and have never actually lifted a rocket into space. And that available supply is finite, once the old engines in storage are used up then they're done.

        It really would have made more sense for OS to develop their own engines or partner with someone who builds new engines, not refurbishes old ones.

        1. Mark 85 Silver badge

          Re: Depressing

          Interesting design but it was never what one would call reliable. I doubt that this engine would ever qualify for "man rated" as there were too many failure points in the design and manufacture and no one seems to want to spend the money to sort it out. If the Russians couldn't get to work way back when with seemingly unlimited cash and people, what makes anyone think that they can under severe budget restraints.

          For some good documentaries, Google: russian rocket engine n1 site:youtube.com

      3. Stevie Silver badge

        Re:The simple fact is

        "The engines, albeit 50+ years old, are solid. They have good engineering, a reasonable pedigree and just as important, there is an available supply."

        Apparently not, though. Otherwise, no story.

        1. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge

          Re: Re:The simple fact is

          The engines, albeit 50+ years old, are solid. They have good engineering, a reasonable pedigree and just as important, there is an available supply."

          Apparently not, though. Otherwise, no story.

          Apparently not what? Not 50+ years old? Think again. Not solid? (for a few different meaning of the term, including "dense", which is a term I trust you are familiar with) Think again. Twice. Available supply? Think again.

          I'ḿ sure you know someone who knows someone who died in a car crash. Do cars strike you as the most dangerous way to move around? (and yet to some regards they are, which kinda ruins my analogy but I don't afraid of anything, as they say, so there you go).

          A rocket's job is to burn. One in a while one will burn in a slightly odd fashion for some reason (perhaps the range cleaner's wife left her handkerchief in the wrong place last time they had a "friendly meeting" with her hubby's boss, we may never know). It will then be detonated remotely by the range safety people, lest the Ruskies Japs Chinese Iranians think it's an ICBM or something.

          It happens, rather rarely, but that's part of the job. It just happened. Why do you think it is required that the supplies on the ISS are sufficient to last for 2 sequential failure of resupply launches?

          1. herman Silver badge

            Re: Re:The simple fact is

            Rarely? How many of these engines reached orbit, vs the ones that blew up?

          2. Stevie Silver badge

            Re: Apparently not what?

            Not solid. Sorry for the rage-inducing confusion. Take your meds.

        2. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge

          Re: Re:The simple fact is

          PS

          It may strike the overpondians as a surprise BUT (and I'm not making a political statement here, just stating common historical knowledge) the USSR went from what was middle-ages-level developpment stage to spaceships whithin 50 years. That takes some extremeley serious science and engineering developpment both in math and physics. I know a bit about academic physics researchers, I've worked with some, in Northern America no less. First thing you notice, half of them have been trained in the former "eastern Block" (that's USSR and it's allies of yesteryears). Second thing, when asked about a Russian physicist or mathematician, in most cases everyone will bow.

          Thirdly, I know quite a few people at the NIH. There is a unofficial "appreciation chart" there, by country you were trained in. French people top the Life Sciences chart, Chinese people feature in the top 5 for all science fields, Russians (and close neighbours) top both the Physics and Mathematics charts. If you consider subcategories Brits are apparenty liked in physiology. Interestingly enough US-trained people never appear on the NIH chart, but that's a story for another time perhaps (research vs developpment etc).

          In a nutshell: wherever physics and mathematics are involved, blaming the Russians is a stupid move. They are usually well-trained in both.

          1. Red Sceptic

            Re: Re:The simple fact is

            Absolutely spot on about Russian maths and physics. The former Soviet Union had a formidable education system, producing absolutely brilliant people in these areas. Even though the system is now not what it was, young Russians coming to school in the UK are still usually well ahead of their UK peers in mathematics, despite not having started formal education until the age of 7.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Re:The simple fact is

              "despite not having started formal education until the age of 7"

              ....or maybe because of it, there is a school of thought that trying to educate kids too early before they are ready to learn is a waste of time, the schools in Sweden start kids at a similar age I believe.

          2. pseudonymous blowhard

            Re: Re:The simple fact is

            I'm with you on the appreciation for Russian science and engineering, but the idea that pre-Soviet Russia was at a "middle-ages-level" of development isn't correct.

            Just to take one example, this guy was doing work on rocketry in the late 19th Century:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konstantin_Tsiolkovsky

            1. Mephistro Silver badge

              Re: Re:The simple fact is (@ pseudonymous blowhard)

              "the idea that pre-Soviet Russia was at a "middle-ages-level" of development isn't correct."

              It's, depending of how you define 'development'. From the top of my head, ~90% of the Russian population back then consisted in peasants living as serfs in a feudal system, which is exactly what Russia was until Red October.

              Tsiolkovsky was a very lucky man, for having the education and the wealth to pursue his interests in a country where famines and disease killed routinely hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, and almost everybody lived in homes without sanitation or running water.

              Some of the punishments the Russian people had to suffer to attain these goals -e.g. massive deportations to Siberia to provide workers to the area- were terrible and my post doesn't condone the Russian Governments of the era for such acts.

              But regarding 'development', there were shitloads of it.

              1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
                Headmaster

                Re: Re:The simple fact is (@ pseudonymous blowhard)

                It's, depending of how you define 'development'. From the top of my head, ~90% of the Russian population back then consisted in peasants living as serfs in a feudal system, which is exactly what Russia was until Red October.

                Errr no.

                Actually Russia was industrializing up very nicely, and then WWI intervened. The fact that they were in process of industrialization actually made it that they could run the war for some time.

                After that, it was only smoke and ruins. After "Red October", it went downhill because Lenin thought that adding more smoke and ruins by attacking Europe through newly formed Poland in 1920 to bring the beleaguered proletarians of Berlin and Rome some freedoms would be a good idea. It was all a mess.

          3. asdf Silver badge

            Re: Re:The simple fact is

            >Russians (and close neighbours) top both the Physics and Mathematics charts

            >US-trained people never appear on the NIH chart

            Funny don't see Russia in the list below. Granted there might be some selection bias but I think you and your buddies opinions might not match the rest of the world's.

            Country, Number of Nobel Laureates

            1. United States 270

            2. United Kingdom 101

            3. Germany 76

            4. France 49

            5. Sweden 30

            6. Switzerland 22

            7. Netherlands 15

            8. Italy 14

            9. Denmark 13

            10. Japan 12

          4. madmalc

            Re: Re:The simple fact is

            Pierre said "In a nutshell: wherever physics and mathematics are involved, blaming the Russians is a stupid move. They are usually well-trained in both."

            Chernobyl

            1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

              Re: Re:The simple fact is

              Chernobyl

              Not physics and math.

              Engineering, mixed with politics.

              Welcome to the retardation.

              But at least you get free national parks with that.

      4. Tom 13

        Re: The engines, albeit 50+ years old, are solid.

        No, they aren't. OSC has blown up over half the engines they used to date. The Soviets canceled their moon shot program because they had too many problems with these rocket engines. That's the whole reason these rockets have been mothballed in Siberia for the last 55 years. Maybe the design in good and the manufacture was flawed. Maybe the design has a flaw we haven't recognized. I'll grant the most likely cause was a problem with the OSC refurb or the assembly of the rocket on the pad. But no matter how you slice it, using this particular engine was a BAD decision.

        Yes, the root cause of the program is the US Shuttle program. It pretty much scuttled our own rocket engine manufacturing base for the last 30 years. Everybody is now relearning things that should already be well known.

        1. Stevie Silver badge

          Re: The engines, albeit 50+ years old, are solid.

          Thank you Tom, for making the point that shouldn't have needed making (but did). Upvote for reading around and getting it.

    3. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: Depressing

      That's because Congress is too incompetent to fund NASA to research and develop a new engine. Orbital would much rather have used new engines IF THEY HAD THEM.

      OTOH, they were fingered in the destruction of the N-1 moon rocket, so they're not exactly trustworthy.

      1. cray74

        Re: Depressing

        "That's because Congress is too incompetent to fund NASA to research and develop a new engine. Orbital would much rather have used new engines IF THEY HAD THEM."

        There are several points about the Antares that means your objections sort of miss the point.

        1) Antares was privately spec'd, developed, and offered to NASA, not a NASA research project like, say, the Saturn V (which was built privately to NASA specifications). Saying NASA should've built a rocket motor for it sort of misses the point of "private contractor" in this situation.

        2) NASA has helped develop some large, powerful liquid fueled engines over the past 20 years, like the Delta IV's RS-68, and the Space Launch Initiative's RS-83 and RS-84. A lot of good, NASA-designed, Congress-funded hardware is out there waiting for customers - if they want it.

        3) Aerojet, like a number of US aerospace firms, got very excited at the sight of Rooskie rocket hardware in the early 1990s after the Iron Curtain opened. Whatever else you can say about Russian spaceflight, they made some very high performance, dense-fuel liquid rocket engines while NASA largely got subverted by the Hydrogen Mafia. The NK-33 (Antares) and RD-170/180 engines (Atlas V) work very well (when they work at all). There are good reasons that US aerospace veterans are advertising these motors.

        4) Orbital Sciences isn't new to the rocket game. It has built the Pegasus, Minotaur family, and most recently the Antares. Likewise, Aerojet Rocketdyne is not n00b, either - it's got everything from the Shuttle's main engine to the RL-10 under its belt. They knew what they were doing, and they knew they had a lot of other options than the AJ-26.

        The renamed NK-33 might've been the wrong choice, but it wasn't because Congress failed to fund NASA's engine development and it wasn't because Orbital Sciences lacked options for first stage engines.

        1. Dave 32
          Mushroom

          Re: Depressing

          Designing rocket engines is hard. VERY hard. You have to mix very a very volatile fuel and oxidizer in the combustion chamber thoroughly to ensure complete combustion. And, you have to do this at some rather incredible temperatures, temperatures which are very close to the melting point of even the most refractory materials. And, these refractory materials have to withstand some fairly high pressures, and are subjected to extreme temperature changes. Plus, the chamber material has to withstand both fuel and oxidizer materials without reacting to either one. Now, couple this design with the fact that the fluid dynamics of rocket chamber combustion isn't a well understood science (definitely not well enough to adequately computer model), and the fact that instabilities can build up such that the combustion process goes non-linear and starts to pulse or vibrate, which can stress those refractory materials well beyond their limits, and the end result is that it's VERY hard to design a new rocket engine. Furthermore, rocket engine designs don't necessarily scale very well, which means that the only way to design a new rocket engine is to build a full size model and empirically test it. But, even static testing can't try all of the conditions that a rocket engine will encounter during its flight. So, it's not too surprising that even a tried and proven 50 year old design may encounter some conditions which cause it to go BOOM in a most unpleasant way. :-/ Rocket science is HARD.

          Dave

          1. Mark 85 Silver badge

            Re: Depressing

            You're spot on except for one minor point... these engines never had a successful launch. There were being designed to power the Russian manned moon program but the program was shut down for two reasons. The first was that the US got there first. The second was that the designer was killed on the Launchpad when a rocket being fueled blew up. He never finished refining the design. So... proven? err.... No!!

            However, the design still holds a lot of promise if they can get the thing to stop blowing up.

            1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

              Re: Depressing @Mark 85

              "The second was that the designer was killed on the Launchpad when a rocket being fueled blew up."

              That is not the case. You probably mistaken it for the Nedelin accident - that was an ICBM being tested on the pad, fully fueled when the 2nd stage motors ignited because of a fault in the sequencer electronics. That thing had totally different engines, operating on hypergolic fuel.

              Now, N1-L3 (with NK-15 engines - the precursors to NK-33/AJ-26 on Antares) did blow up on the pad during one test, producing one of the largest non-nuke explosions in the history of humanity, but that was when the engines were unnecessarily cut off by on-board automatics after it detected a problem with one (of 30!) turbopump. Basically, the rocket took off then fell back down on the pad - similar to Antares. No one was killed or injured in the accident.

            2. cray74

              Re: Depressing

              "You're spot on except for one minor point... these engines never had a successful launch. "

              The NK-33 worked great in the Antares on April 21st, 2013.

              "The second was that the designer was killed on the Launchpad when a rocket being fueled blew up."

              Nikolai Dmitriyevich Kuznetsov died in 1995 at the age of 84 while far from a rocket. You might be thinking of the Nedelin Disaster, when a fueled ICBM blew up on the pad in 1960 (years before NK-33 development began). In that case, the general (Nedelin) who ordered the hurried launch was incinerated along with about 100 other technicians and scientists. Even then the lead designer, Mikhail Yangel, wasn't killed in the explosion - he'd stepped away from a smoke.

              "He never finished refining the design. So... proven? err.... No!!"

              The NK-33 was refined into the NK-43 (high altitude variant), and derivatives of its hardware were used on the RD-170/171, -180, and -191. The RD-180 is used in the Atlas V, which has had 49 successful launches as of this week (1 upper stage failure in 50 launches - ain't the RD-180's problem), while the RD-170 is used in the Zenit.

          2. stu 4

            Re: Depressing

            Lots of things are hard.

            But they were a shit lot harder when you were trying to do them with a slide rule…

            which was how these antiques where made.

            you can refurbish all you want, but micro-fractures, etc in metals and alloys are bound to form and be undetectable after 50 fecking years !

            And is it so 'hard' now ?

            Now we have computers to do the grunt work and 75+ years of experience ? The success of space X says - NO it isn't. It's a piece of fucking piss. It needs good people and lots of cash - but its not more difficult than engineering the latest retina iMac.

            the 'its not rocket science' line is 75 years old and it's passed its sell date.

            Using stuff that was knocked out before we'd even invented transistors and that's been designed on A2 paper draft boards is fucking mental.

            Space X must be gloating away. And maybe NASA is thinking whether their 'we'll take the lowest bidder' approach is maybe a bit fuckwitted after all...

          3. Tom 13

            Re: even a tried and proven 50 year old design

            Except it ISN'T a proven design. In fact, to the extent it is proven, it is proven bad. This particular engine was put into mothballs because of how many problems the Soviets had with it when working on their moon shot program. Not just the design, but the engines themselves.

        2. Johan Bastiaansen

          Re: Depressing

          You're missing the point, this is how capitalism operates. If it works, you take the profit. If it doesn't work, you blame the government.

          Didn't you get the memo?

        3. tfb Silver badge
          Boffin

          Re: Depressing

          While I agree with you in fact – as far as I can tell the NK-33 is actually rather a good engine – your first point, that Antares was developed privately, does not actually say anything about whether NASA was willing or able to fund a new design. If I'm a private company developing a vehicle which I hope to sell to NASA (as the only real customer), then I had better make sure that NASA can afford the thing I develop. That means that if I know, for instance, that they can't afford a new engine design, then I can't afford one either.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Depressing

        The bigger question has nothing to do with Congress and the amount of resources that we spend on NASA. Why do the private companies do so much with so much less than NASA does. So often we see people lamenting the end of the Shuttle Program without realizing that the program was the Black hole that ate all the NASA funding, or too much of it.

      3. Simon Ball

        Re: Depressing

        Forgive me for my ignorance, but it was always my understanding that the problems of the N1 were not caused by the NK33 as an individual engine, but the rediculously elaborate and subject-to-complex-vibrational-modes plumbing necessitated by trying to use THIRTY of them in a single stage?

        1. cray74

          Re: Depressing

          "Forgive me for my ignorance, but it was always my understanding that the problems of the N1 were not caused by the NK33 as an individual engine, but the rediculously elaborate and subject-to-complex-vibrational-modes plumbing necessitated by trying to use THIRTY of them in a single stage"

          Nope, not the complexity of the plumbing. 3 out of 4 N-1 failures can be traced to something involving a NK-33 engine, more or less.

          The first N-1 to blow up had an NK-33 engine develop an unexpectedly strong combustion oscillation in its gas generator. This shook a propellant pipe loose from that one engine, leading to a fire fatal to the rocket. The Russians responded by adding fire extinguishers.

          The second N-1 to blow up had an NK-33 shake loose a bolt inside its liquid oxygen line a few seconds into flight, which got into the liquid oxygen pump and made the engine unhappy. The engine control computer tried to shut down that engine, and did so. Along with 28 others. The N-1 fell back on the pad and made one of the largest, manmade non-nuclear explosions. Rather than tightening production standards (and loose bolts), the Russians added metal mesh filters to the oxygen lines.

          The third N-1 to blow up did not have engine problems per se. It went into a roll and the engines didn't have enough oomph to damp the roll by gimbaling. Later N-1s would have dedicated roll control engines.

          The fourth N-1 to blow up again sort of had engine problems, or plumbing problems - but it wasn't a result of all the pipes from the 30 engines interacting. When this N-1 reached Max-Q, it throttled back to lower structural stress by shutting down some engines. The snap-shut valves and fast-moving propellant caused a "water hammer" effect in the fuel lines. One engine blew up (its oxygen pump ruptured from the water hammer effect), and the N-1 came apart.

          None of those exactly happened because of engine plumbing complexity, though at least one had a problem start in the plumbing and ruin an engine. On the flip side, 29 of the engines on each of those 3 flights worked pretty well until the rocket blew up. That's 87 good NK-33 engine firings, right? :)

          1. Simon Ball

            Re: Depressing

            Ah, my bad. Thanks for the information. Although does it not illustrate roughly the same point? It's not that the NK33 was particularly unreliable as an individual unit, just that they were used in a configuration where the failure of one, or a small number, had a grossly disproportionate impact on the rocket as whole.

            1. cray74

              Re: Depressing

              "It's not that the NK33 was particularly unreliable as an individual unit, just that they were used in a configuration where the failure of one, or a small number, had a grossly disproportionate impact on the rocket as whole."

              Yep. Having lots of high-strung, new-model engines together gives a lot of chances for something to go wrong.

              It's one reason I'm wary of SpaceX's 9-engine approach on the Falcon 9, and the planned 27-engine approach for its 3-core heavy design. More engines make you more likely to survive the failure of 1 (as happened with the Falcon 9), or 2 (as happened with the Saturn V), or even 3-4 (as happened with 747s) but every extra engine is another opportunity for failure. There's a point where extra engines begin increasing your risk, not lowering it. (I don't know what that number is - it is probably engine- and chassis-specific.)

  3. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
    Pint

    Looks like an Almost Miss...

    Maybe the less reliable rockets should be tilted over, in the direction of the sea.

    So when they go up 300 feet and explode, they're already fully over the ocean.

    </being_silly> <sorry>

    1. Extra spicey vindaloo

      Re: Looks like an Almost Miss...

      It had already started moving away, no buildings on the beach side of the facility as when a rocket takes off it starts to move away the moment it's in the air.

    2. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: Looks like an Almost Miss...

      That's why most launch sites have either water, or large tracts of land to the east, as that's the way the majority of rockets are launched.

      (Launching east gets you a bit of help from the rotation of the Earth, more so if you're on the equator.)

  4. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge

    BIIIIG surprise

    Must be them commies.

    In much the same manner as the catastrophic loss of the Mars Orbiter was blamed on "English units" in the US, despite said units being used solely in the US, the Russian design will be responsible for this one. The Merkins can't do anything wrong, you see. Hollywood taught us so.

    1. RainForestGuppy

      Re: BIIIIG surprise

      Blame Canada!!

  5. Tom 38 Silver badge

    All this talk of faulty Russian engines is just a cover up I reckon. Much more likely one of Mr Musk's henchmen with an RPG.

    1. Gordon 10 Silver badge

      No Mr Bond I expect you to die

      If Hank Scorpio Elon Musk used anything as prosaic as an RPG I'd be sorely disappointed. A frikkin Shark mounted laser beam or an Orbiting Ion cannon as a minimum.

      1. FutureShock999

        Re: No Mr Bond I expect you to die

        Elon would just put on his shiny Iron Man suit and take it out with his hand-mounted repulsers...or just fly next to it and tip it into the ocean.

        He does have that suit, trust me.

    2. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      No need to do that

      Not like this particular engine has a stellar track record. It _NEVER_ flew and for a reason too - it never passed the end-to-end tests.

      Now, if this was one of the newer Russian engines (the ones Boeing buys for the Atlas), then some extra intervention to rekindle the dispute about sanction applicability would have been needed.

  6. Frankee Llonnygog

    Wallops is out of action

    In the interim, we'll be launching from Crashes and Bangs

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Wallops is out of action

      But what a picture. What a photograph.

      1. Frankee Llonnygog

        Re: Wallops is out of action

        Ah happy, innocent days. Gone is the era when a popular entertainer could happily sing the refrain. "Stick it in your family, stick it in your family, stick it in your family, al-bum!"

  7. Anonymous Blowhard

    “A scenario such as this is part of any early-stage company"

    I'll make sure to get my friend to add this to his business plan for next year; I wonder if NFU Mutual can quote him for insurance in the event that a rocket engine explodes in his milking parlour?

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Happy

      That's why the cow jumped over the moon.

    2. John H Woods

      I'll insure him for that

      n/t

  8. RU37

    The headline of this article is odd: "Ex-Soviet engines fingered after Antares ROCKET launch BLAST". It's obvious what you mean, but I'm trying to deconstruct "Ex-Soviet engines". The engines came from Soviets, so they once were Soviet engines. But they aren't Soviet engines any more. Or are they? If they're now Russian engines, then why not call them Russian engines?

    Reminds me of my ex-wife who insisted on saying she was from "the former Czechoslovakia".

    1. ElReg!comments!Pierre Silver badge

      Buck passing 101

      The buck passing functions optimally only when the recipient is a well-established (or former well-established) Bad Guy (TM).

      I'm a bit surprised that noone has blamed the poor battery life of the iWatch on North Korea or Iran yet.

      1. disgruntled yank Silver badge

        Re: Buck passing 101

        With all due respect, and maybe a dollop extra for lagniappe, El Reg is not an American publication.

    2. Frankee Llonnygog

      @RU37

      So, your ex-chick is ex-Czech, check?

      1. AbelSoul
        Coat

        Re: So, your ex-chick is ex-Czech, check?

        Ah, I always wondered what the Exchequer was for...

      2. Steve 114
        IT Angle

        Re: @RU37

        You chucked the Czech chick, Chuck: may we check whether she checked-out with a cheque?

        1. RU37

          Re: @RU37

          My former wife became a US citizen, so I guess my ex is now an ex-Czech. And she chucked Chuck, no check (cheque), new (non-Czech) mate, mate.

      3. Cynic_999 Silver badge

        Re: @RU37

        A cancelled Czech, I expect.

    3. Uffish

      Norwegian Blue

      see title

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    My guess.

    I've been watching the video a lot, and it seems to me that there was a fuel leak, there was a flare on the pad, that looks like it was burning extra fuel. Then once it had cleared the structure it flared again in the same way before exploding.

  10. Alistair Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    @ru-37

    Fox News Headline:

    Republicans everywhere are demanding that Obama recind the American citizenship of AJ-26s everywhere.

  11. JamesPond
    Flame

    Blown up not blew up

    According to the BBC website, the rocket was blown up by the range safety office when the anomaly occurred, rather than the rocket blowing up on its own.

    1. Malcolm Weir Silver badge

      Re: Blown up not blew up

      In my humble opinion, that did not look like the Range Safety guy hit the big red Flight Termination Button.

      Three reasons:

      1) terminating a flight so soon is likely to achieve exactly what happened -- the vehicle falls back on the expensive launch infrastructure, causing lots of damage. Waiting another 10 seconds or so would have put the vehicle over water.

      2) The time from ignition to explosion was about 6 seconds. That's very little time to identify an anomaly, conclude that the anomaly was sufficiently serious that the flight was no a risk, and abort it.

      3) The range safety officer is a NASA guy. If NASA blew the thing up, I reckon Orbital would have said something about it, just to share the misery.

    2. Tom 13

      Re: Blown up not blew up

      The range safety guy is there to blow up the rocket before the rocket blows up when it looks like the rocket might be about to blow up. We are told that's because when the range safety officer blows it up, he blows it up more safely than it would blow up if the rocket simply blew up. So it really is arguing semantics.

      1. Malcolm Weir Silver badge

        Re: Blown up not blew up

        That's simply not true. The Range Safety Officer is there to ensure that the vehicle does not deviate from the approved track far enough to risk damage to people or property. In particular, if the vehicle becomes uncontrollable, the RSO will terminate the flight so that it will falls within the range's designated volume (airspace and floorplan).

        Following a catastrophic event, the RSO may well try to terminate the flight, but the emphasis here is on the word _following_. The reason terminating a flight that is already exploding is that no-one wants (e.g.) the second stage to ignite and go barreling off to see what it can see [Yeah, I know, massively unlikely, but not impossible].

        So this isn't semantics: from the looks of things, Antares blew up. The RSO may have aborted the flight, too, but if you watch the video closely, that would have been while the vehicle was moving backwards...

  12. chivo243 Silver badge
    Joke

    Soviet Products

    I wonder how much Soviet vodka was needed to construct these Soviet rockets?

    Anyone else see the connection here? If not, make up your own!

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Re: Soviet Products

      There was never Soviet vodka in the Soviet Union.

      We had Soviet Whisky, Soviet Gin, Soviet Champagne but vodka was always "Russian" or "Moscow" or "Stolichnaya" etc. 8-|

      1. markw:

        Re: Soviet Products

        Ah, Soviet "Champagne".

        Once tasted never forgotten...

  13. Nigel 11

    Safety margins

    It's worth noting that safety margins are pared far finer in the launch of unmanned rockets than in any other field of engineering I can think of. The rocket equations provide ample excuse. A small gain in rocket efficiency translates into a large gain of cargo weight delivered into orbit.

    I don't know what happens in practice. In principle, too many launches without a failure should result in someone deciding how to shave more weight and safety margin off future launches!

  14. Charles Manning

    When all else fails, find a scapegoat.

    What horseshit.

    A team of US engineers designed the craft and are responsible for the ongoing servicing of the program.

    Part of the design process is qualification and testing of the components that went into the product and making sure they were fit for purpose.

    If they designed in a defective component, then failed to respond when the component was found to be defective, then that was their fault.

    Likewise, NASA is, as the name says, an Administration. They are filled with Administrators. Part of the administrators' reponsibilities is to ensure that the projects are audited and run well so that public money is not wasted.

    All we're seeing here is a bunch of defective administrators and engineers looking for a scapegoat.

    1. FutureShock999

      Re: When all else fails, find a scapegoat.

      Administrators don't go back and re-do all the testing. All they can do is ensure that the checks and testing was done, and the paperwork supports that it was done correctly. That IS the essence of administration in a free-market economy.

      Now if the sub-contractor (Orbital Sciences in this case) does that testing incorrectly, or incompletely, or incompetently, then they are at fault, and they have insurance to cover that business eventuality. Their reputation suffers, and their insurance rates will likely increase per launch. NASA has no responsibility in this instance...nor should they. Being administrators means they orchestrated the launch, ensured Wallops was ready, and ensured the area around it was clear for launch (oops). That is what an administrator does, not reverse engineer the engine, re-perform the testing, etc. By all accounts, Wallops was ready, NASA tried to ensure the area was clear, and ensured what would have been a safe and successful launch had the sub-contractor been successful.

      NASA is entirely blameless, IMHO. There is a culprit, and that is whomever inspected and certified those engines most likely.

    2. Tom 13

      Re: When all else fails, find a scapegoat.

      A team of US engineers designed the craft and are responsible for the ongoing servicing of the program.

      That bit cannot be repeated often enough. Even if when the investigation is concluded we find that there is a fatal flaw in the engine design, the US engineering team still holds ultimate responsibility because they chose to use that rocket.

  15. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Pint

    There is only one hope for our undertaking....

    CLONE KOROLEV!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: There is only one hope for our undertaking....

      ...and build a gulag in Alaska so that he and his team could be "encouraged" to come up with the goods.

      I have the impression that every time a Russian rocket designer or equivalent got too interested in wine, women and song (or vodka, woman and dollar shops) he was carted off to a gulag to work without distraction. It obviously got results.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
        Big Brother

        Re: There is only one hope for our undertaking....

        Well, Korolev CAME FROM the gulag because "ZOMG HITLER, AYYY MOTHERLAND!", so there is that.

        Along the line of that Turing Biopic: The Chief Designer

        1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

          Re: There is only one hope for our undertaking....

          Korolev was not alone there either. Tupolev was there too. If Hiitler waited for a year before attacking USSR, Stalin would have managed to complete the extermination of scientific, engineering and military command capacity providing the Vermacht with a walk in the park.

  16. Tim Brummer

    The damage doesn't look too bad, when the Titan 34D-9 I worked on blew up, it destroyed entire buildings and fuel systems. http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1268/1

    I worked inside the launch support building in that last photo. In the foreground is what remains of a 12 foot high air conditioning building that had one foot thick concrete walls. One of the SRM's fell on it.

  17. Wzrd1

    What is a rocket, exactly?

    Take a great big bloody bomb.

    Make it explode in one direction, at a slower than immediate rate, make it continue to do so until one is at one's destination point or needs to replace that one direction bomb.

    As a practical example, I know of one intermediate range tactical missile that uses thermate as its propellent, with some modifying binders mixed in.

    A second example would be all manned NASA rockets, which use hydrogen and oxygen.

    Now, take that bomb, assemble it with loads of moving parts and electrical circuits, well, it gets complicated.

    Rocket science isn't as much science as it's partially an art.

    An example from early and even current rocketry, liquid fueled engines can suffer from pogo oscillation, due to structural components moving due to acceleration. That results in slowing fuel/oxidizer rates, then normal rates. That has destroyed quite a few rockets.

    Now, who wants to design a rocket to personally fly up into space?

    Not I!

  18. stuartnz
    Mushroom

    Explosive Economisation

    I remember posting here when Orbital won the contract bemused by their receiving quite a lot more money than Space X for significantly fewer missions and overall load capacity. Now it's all become clear - some Dilbert was very conscientiously following through on a directive to get more bang for the buck.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Happy

      Re: Explosive Economisation

      Or you could reverse it, and say that Orbital got more buck for their bang...

  19. crediblywitless

    Just imagine being able to give your job title, when asked, as 'chief asteroid miner'. How totally cool would that be?

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      It sounds like there is a Potemkin Village somewhere around the next street.

  20. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    Engines fingered

    It's obvious that the problem was with some component of the engines. The really important bit is with which one?

    If the fire started due to materiel or manufacturing defect in the original parts - that will be a big issue, which will make further use of the stockpiled motors difficult or impossible and put the continuation of the Antares program at risk.

    If that was a fault in the new components (Aeroject has designed new articulated feed lines to increase the gimbaling angle) - that will be a much lesser issue. One that can be easily fixed in the future.

    Let's just wait and see what the investigation will show.

    1. Tom 13

      Re: continuation of the Antares program at risk.

      No need to put the program at risk. They should just re-assign the contract to the people who should have won it in the first place.

  21. kmac499

    A bit crowded on the Pad

    It looks a bit different to Canaveral.. is that a collection of Portacabins around the base of the pad.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: A bit crowded on the Pad

      Well why go to the expense of putting up permanent buildings there?

  22. PAT MCCLUNG

    Those Antares rocket first stages were fabricated in Ukraine, not Russia.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      fabricated in Ukraine, not Russia

      The "Russian" plane that was nearly shot down by a Tornado the other day was in fact Latvian by ownership. Get with the program. If anything bad is attributable in any way to the Russians, no matter how stretched, it's their fault.

      Because the rise of ISIS means that we are no longer at war with Syrasia or Iranasia, so we must be at war with Russasia. If we aren't at war with someone, the children of arms companies execs might have to meet children from State schools.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: fabricated in Ukraine, not Russia

        We are at war with Iranasia as long as AIPAC controls the money spigot.

  23. Sirius Lee

    The BBC recently aired a documentary about the Russian side of the space race. It's an interesting story but one observation stood out for me. At the time Gobachev did his thing and USSR split, the US invested in the Russian rocket project, not so much for the technology, it was claimed, but to find things to do for experienced rocket engineers to do for feat that they might go work for the Norks and/or Iranians.

    Maybe this cold war thinking is still alive and well. OR seem to have known the engines were suspect but by giving the remaining engineers something to do by re-commissioning old engines maybe it kept them in the fold and not out causing mischief elsewhere.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      to find things to do for experienced rocket engineers

      Nothing at all to do with the relative death rate for the Shuttle and Russian unmanned rockets, or the cost per kg delivered to orbit then?

      Unlike WW2, although the Russian rocket engineers could simply have been offered jobs in the West, moving the production and infrastructure might have been harder.

  24. asdf Silver badge

    more proof without Von Braun no moon shot

    Von Braun might well have been more ahead of his time than virtually any other scientist in the 20th century including Einstein.

  25. Chozo
    Alien

    Is it just me

    Is it just me or does anybody else find it really depressing that disposable chemical rockets are still being used to reach orbit. Whatever happened to SSTO?

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