The Surprisingly Low-Tech Way NASA Decides When To Blow Up A Rocket

The Surprisingly Low-Tech Way NASA Decides When to Blow Up a Rocket

When the Antares rocket exploded seconds after launch on Tuesday night, NASA was able to account for all its employees very quickly after the failure thanks to a clearly very well-practised protocol. The launch gave us a peek into the processes that dictate every rocket launch, and one of them was particularly surprising.

In the press conference following the explosion, we learned that as Antares began behaving "erratically" a few seconds after liftoff, the launch crew responsible for tracking it initiated something called the flight termination system — which essentially pulls the plug on a rocket launch before it can climb too high and cause potential damage as it malfunctions. But who makes that decision, and with what split-second information?

In a fascinating story in National Geographic today entitled Why NASA Blew Up a Rocket Just After Launch, Brad Scriber explains. According to Scriber — who watched the Antares failure in person on Wallops Island — two employees at every launch play an important and dangerous role at every launch. Rather than staying protected with the rest of the team, these employees watch the launch's first few seconds from behind carefully positioned wood and wire frames.

Why? Because at this point, radar is too imprecise to track the rocket's position — and human sight is more reliable. Scriber writes:

In the early seconds of a launch, when the rocket is near the ground, there is too much interference from trees and nearby structures for radar and other monitoring systems to be accurate. So spotters watch the launch through wooden viewing frames fitted with guide wires. If the rocket crosses behind a wire, they know it's veering off track and they send up an alarm telling the safety officers to abort. Then they seek shelter.

According to a 2008 Popular Mechanics story about these Range Safety employees, they're responsible for manning the Launch Termination call for the first full two minutes of flight. "If something happens when it's just off the pad, there's only a couple of seconds [to react]," a former NASA shuttle commander told the magazine.

It's fascinating to know that plain sight plays such a huge role one of humanity's most complex and sophisticated technological achievements. After all, human errors have been responsible for at least one massive rocket launch screw up, known as the Most Expensive Hyphen in History, when a single errant hyphen in a launch code caused a $US60 million rocket to explode in 1962. But it seems that in the end, we still have to trust our own eyes. [National Geographic]

Picture: AP Photo/NASA, Joel Kowsky

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    Wouldn't some sort of laser be better to detect any veering than a person who may inadvertently shift at an inopportune time and mistakenly send an abort?

      It's a good question. But I also gave me a laugh when I misread the word 'shift'

      Last edited 31/10/14 12:06 pm

      Even some sort of electro optical sensor, using laser designators given the fact the rocket and its path is locked in and set without variation

      Then again none of us are rocket surgeons!

        A laser based system at take off would be defeated by the clouds of flame and smoke. Once the Rocket has some altitude it might work, but the Mk1 eyeball can do a great job at any altitude.

          Which is basically what the article says, along with why they cant rely on radar.

          So these people watching this launch can see through smoke that a laser can't penetrate?

    Gyroscope anyone? Surely they could take reading from multiple gyroscopes on board and get an accurate read on how the launch is going?

    Why wouldn't they be able to do the visual sighting via a HD camera rig? Even an Oculus type set up to see it in 3D? It'd be more accurate and keep all personnel safely out of harms way.

    In the end of the day, they don't do any of the above because there needs to be accountability. It's simply not good enough to risk millions of dollars and in manned launch scenarios human lives to sensor readings that cannot be 100% factually trusted.

    I'm very sure they do use all of the above, in addition to the human element that makes the final call.

    The Surprisingly Low-Tech Way NASA Decides When To Blow Up A Rocket

    Guy comes running up to it with a pocket full of sharp rocks.

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