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Launch score: nature 3, NASA 0.

Launch score: Nature 3, NASA 0

As a thunderstorm was raging overNASA's Wallops Island, Va., launch facility on the night of June 9, officials waited in a blockhouse to launch a group of sounding rockets in a study of lightning's effects on the ionosphere. The NASA team never got a chance. Instead, for the first time in more than 13,000 launchings since operations began at Wallops in 1945, the lightning itself took over the job.

As the NASA personnel waited for thestorm to pass over the site, expecting to conduct the firing about two and a half hours later, the lightning ignited a small, payload-equipped Orion sounding rocket and two smaller test rockets, sending all three on their way. The test rockets, intended to help the launch team check out its tracking radar, apparently followed their planned routes, climbing to about 15,000 feet and 2 1/2 miles downrange before dropping into the Atlantic Ocean. The Orion, which had not yet been elevated to its intended liftoff angle, took off almost horizontally, traveling about 300 feet before hitting the water.

No one was injured in the incident, andthree other rockets were unaffected. This week, an investigating committee was working to determine the cause of the mishap. The Orion rocket that was launched, for example, had had its "igniters' installed and its firing cables connected, though they were deliberately short-circuited and grounded at the launch-control cubicle as a standard safety precaution. One possibility being evaluated was that the launch was triggered by a current induced in the cables by the lightning. Yet a pair of Super-Loki rockets that did not take off at all had been in the same state of readiness, possibly differing from the Orion only in their igniter configurations.

NASA estimates that the total value ofthe equipment "destroyed' in the affair is less than $50,000, not atypical for operations at Wallops Island, where old military rockets and other such equipment are often used. But Ron Sawyer, head of the facility's Safety and Quality Assurance Engineering Branch, notes that experience gained from investigating last week's incident could turn out to be important if it helps prevent lightning-triggered launchings on other occasions or at other facilities, where the stakes could well be higher. The investigators even include a representative from the space shuttle program.

Lightning has affected NASA's liftoffsbefore--in March, for example, it destroyed an already ascending Atlas-Centaur rocket--but "to my knowledge,' says Sawyer, this is the only time anywhere it has done the actual launching.
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Title Annotation:lightning ignites 3 rockets
Author:Eberhart, Jonathan
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 20, 1987
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