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Cleanup ongoing at Kodiak’s Spaceport after last month’s rocket crash

ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket on the launchpad at Kodiak’s Pacific Spaceport Complex, November 2022. (ABL Space Systems)
ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket on the launchpad at Kodiak’s Pacific Spaceport Complex, November 2022. (ABL Space Systems)

California-based aerospace company ABL Space Systems was hoping for its first successful rocket launch from Kodiak’s Pacific Spaceport Complex last month. But instead, a black plume of smoke was visible from the city of Kodiak just minutes after liftoff. Extensive cleanup is ongoing at the facility – and more information is emerging about the crash.

ABL had been trying to launch from Kodiak since the fall, and had scrubbed several times leading up to the launch failure on Jan. 10.

No one was hurt, but some of the facility’s infrastructure was damaged or destroyed when the rocket tumbled back to earth.

Kodiak’s Pacific Spaceport Complex is owned and operated by Alaska Aerospace, and ABL is one of two companies that launch from the facility. The other company, Astra, successfully launched its first commercial rocket carrying satellites from Kodiak in March of last year, after a fiery crash back in 2020.

According to ABL’s website, once successfully launched, its RS1 rocket would be a game changer for the satellite launch industry – requiring less time and fewer people to get satellites into space.

Alaska Aerospace’s Chief Executive Officer Milton Keeter said all launch plans are developed with oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration, which requires a flight safety analysis for each mission.

“Whenever we have these operations and testing, the public’s interest is high – pretty much the highest,” he said. “So, safety is paramount for us.”

ABL is still investigating what went wrong, but the company said via Twitter on Jan. 18 that the rocket reached an altitude of more than 700 feet before its engines shut down – about 11 seconds into liftoff.

In its investigation with the FAA, ABL identified several possible contributors to the crash, including pressure spikes and temperature rises just seconds after liftoff. Evidence of fire or smoke may have shut down several of the rocket’s sensors.

The 88-foot rocket landed about 60 feet from the launch pad, and exploded with 95% of its fuel still on-board. According to Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation, 5,200 gallons of fuel were released in the crash.

ABL did not agree to speak on tape for this story. But a spokesperson for the company said last week that the fuel was contained to an area near the launch site, and most of it likely burned off. Nearby beaches were not impacted by the spill, according to the company. Clean-up crews also scoured the area with metal detectors for any physical debris.

Alaska Aerospace and ABL are currently working with DEC and the state’s Department of Natural Resources on a remediation plan for the area. According to documents submitted to DEC, an Anchorage-based firm, Restoration Science & Engineering, has been hired to sample the site’s soil and groundwater. Local construction company Brechan has also been hired to help with cleanup.

Keeter said the process has been moving quickly.

“We have a draft plan that’s going to DEC currently as we speak,” he said.

January’s failed launch comes after a summer of complaints from locals over closures to public recreation areas near the Spaceport complex. At a Kodiak Island Borough Assembly meeting on Feb. 2, following the January crash, interim borough manager Dave Conrad said he’s heard again from community members about safety near the complex.

“There’s a lot of concern on things detonating in the atmosphere, and potential pollution and additional restrictions to the road,” Conrad said.

ABL said it’s learned a lot from January’s failed launch, and the company still has 15 to 20 employees on the island. The company is currently working on the next iteration of its first commercial rocket.

Alaska Aerospace’s Keeter said they’ve also learned from January’s crash, and plan to make some modifications to the facility as they rebuild.

“When the original [launch] pads were laid out, the way they were positioned, were probably not the not the best,” he said. “So, we’ll reconfigure the layout of the pad,”

He said they’re hoping to have any site cleanup and construction for the rebuild complete in three to four months.