The Orbital Antares rocket, scheduled to launch later today, is an excellent example of how important safety and security is for a space flight.
During my recent trip to the Antares launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, I had the chance to discuss with former astronaut Carl Walz, currently Orbital Vice President of Human Space Flight Operations, the safety and security features incorporated into Antares as well as Cygnus, the cargo craft which will be launched by Antares later this year. Safety is critical for any rocket launch, especially when it comes to protecting human life.
Much like most computer data centers, the Antares launch pad has redundant power systems: a commercial power feed, as well as generators the size of tractor trailers. These systems are setup to automatically switch over in the case of a failure. After all, you don't want to suddenly lose power while you're in the middle of a final countdown.
Further similar to a data center, a rocket launch requires continuous monitoring. Any failure in monitoring could be disastrous, as a critical problem could be overlooked. Monitoring occurs during all phases of the mission - from launch pad, to liftoff, to flight, until the mission is completed. In fact, the first attempt to launch Antares had to be aborted due to early detachment of a data cable.
There are multiple, redundant systems in place to not only verify the Antares rocket isn't headed towards a populated area, but also to destroy all sections of the rocket if there's a chance the rocket could even come close to impacting a populated area.
Multiple systems are used to track the position and trajectory of Antares. NASA tracks the rocket primarily through RADAR, but the rocket also transmits GPS and accellerometer information. A computer uses the tracking information to verify the course is not outside the "safety zone", as well as constantly generate an "instantaneous impact point" which uses physics to model what the impact would be if the rocket needed to be remotely destroyed.
Antares contains an automatic destruct system, as well as a manual destruct system. If the Orbital built first stage, or ATK built second stage, separates prematurely, the automatic destruct system will activate, destroying the entire launch vehicle. The manual destruct system can be triggered by NASA at any time during the launch if something is going wrong, and relies upon multiple redundant UHF receivers. Note that Antares rocket does not yet include the Autonomous Flight Safety System, which has been under development by NASA and in test at Wallops Flight Facility.
I feel very reassured after my discussions with Carl Walz, as well as several personnel from ATK and NASA, that state-of-the-art security and safety measures are in place to ensure that minimal risk to human life is present during all stages of the Antares mission.
Antares is scheduled to liftoff at 5 PM eastern on April 21, 2013. You can watch the launch live on NASA TV. Stay updated on the launch status by following @NASA_Wallops, @ATK, and @OrbitalSciences on Twitter.