Tim Furniss/LONDON

EER SYSTEMS' Conestoga 1620 multi-stage, solid-propellant satellite launcher, exploded 45s after launch on its maiden flight from the company's commercial launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia on 23 October. The Multiple Experiments Transporter to Earth Orbit (METEOR) payload was destroyed.

The catastrophe could end the short career of the Conestoga and its METEOR series of spacecraft, and is another major blow to the US low-Earth orbit (LEO) launcher industry.

The incident follows the second successive failure of an Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL booster, after its air launch on 22 June, and the destruction of the first Lockheed Launch Vehicle (LLV 1) 160s after launch from Vandenberg AFB, California on 14 October.

A third attempt to launch the Pegasus XL is imminent, but the next LLV flight will not be attempted until June 1996.

EER Systems had hoped to enter a series of Conestoga vehicles into the LEO market and to promote its recoverable METEOR spacecraft for commercial micro-gravity research flights. Neither market is yet proven, as illustrated by the demise of several proposed LEO launcher projects - including American Rocket's Amroc - and the inability of Spacehab to get full commercial customers for its Space Shuttle mid-deck module.

The METEOR, carrying 14 micro-gravity experiments, was a remnant of the NASA-sponsored Commercial Experiment Transporter (COMET) programme, which became a victim of the uncertain market.

EER Systems continued to finance the programme, with a small NASA contract that ensured one flight, and built its own Conestoga launch pad at Wallops Island.

Source: Flight International