With budgets for space exploration plummeting around the world, NASA has pinned its hopes for next generation space travel on private companies. But that strategy received a major setback last night as an unmanned rocket carrying supplies and secret equipment to the International Space Station (ISS) exploded in an enormous fireball just seconds after igniting its engines.
Luckily no injuries were reported, but the devastating loss of hardware is yet another setback for the next generation of space exploration.
The Antares rocket was built and operated by Orbital Sciences Corp who, along with Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, jointly shares the responsibility of resupplying the International Space Station.
Tuesday's planned flight was to be the third of eight under the company's $1.9 billion (£1.2 billion) contract with Nasa. SpaceX's contract is worth a further $1.6 billion (£1 billion).
Founded in 1982, Orbital's primary products are satellites and launch vehicles, including low-Earth orbit, geosynchronous-Earth orbit and planetary spacecraft for communications, remote sensing, scientific and defense missions; human-rated space systems for Earth-orbit, lunar and other missions; ground- and air-launched rockets that deliver satellites into orbit; and missile defense systems that are used as interceptor and target vehicles. Orbital also provides satellite subsystems and space-related technical services to government agencies and laboratories.
The Antares range of rockets, known during early development as Taurus II, is the largest rocket operated by Orbital Sciences, and acts as an expendable launch system. Able to launch payloads heavier than 5,000 kg into low-Earth orbit, it made its inaugural flight on April 21, 2013.
The rocket system is designed to launch the Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station as part of NASA's COTS and CRS programs.
So is this a remarkable failure in the transition from publicly funded space exploration, or just a hiccup on the road ahead?