On a balmy night in late October 2014, Rachel Lindbergh and dozens of others stood on the grass at the end of Arbuckle Neck Road in Virginia, staring across the bay. Their eyes were trained on a spot on Wallops Island less than two miles away, where a 14-story-tall Antares rocket stood ready to blast off into space, loaded with food, supplies, and science experiments, including one that Lindbergh had been working on for two years.
The group ticked off the seconds together as the countdown from mission control came over the portable speakers. The engines ignited, shooting thick curls of smoke from the launchpad, and the Antares began its ascent, bound for the International Space Station. For a few seconds the rocket shone like a yellow jewel against the dark sky, and then it was gone, consumed in a ball of fire. The shock wave that followed the explosion knocked some of the spectators on Arbuckle Neck Road to the ground.
“I didn’t really believe what was happening,” Lindbergh said.
Now in her second year at the University of Chicago, Lindbergh is a member of a an exclusive group no one actually wants to be in: people who have seen their work destroyed in a failed rocket launch. Resupply missions to the International Space Station, like the one carrying Lindbergh’s experiment, are routine at this point. Cargo is launched every couple months, usually from Russia or the United States. The commercial spaceflight companies NASA uses to carry out these missions are, for the most part, good at it. But everyone knows that something could still go wrong, and sometimes it does. Orbital ATK, the company that owns the Antares rockets and Cygnus spacecrafts, eventually concluded that something—they couldn’t be sure exactly what—caused the main engine system to explode, and engineers were forced to hit the self-destruct button before the rocket fell to the ground.