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Moon lander prototype blows up in NASA test

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:27 AM EDT, Fri August 10, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "The vehicle itself is lost," program chief says
  • NEW: Operators are recovering data from the crashed lander
  • The unmanned Morpheus is designed to carry cargo to the moon
  • NASA calls failed tests "part of the development process"

(CNN) -- An unmanned moon lander under development crashed and blew up during an engine test Thursday afternoon at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the space agency reported.

There were no injuries in the failed test of the lander, dubbed "Morpheus." The craft had gone through several previous exercises in which it was hung from a crane, but Thursday was to have been its first free flight.

Instead, the prototype rose a short distance, rolled over and slammed into the ground. The craft caught fire immediately and exploded about 30 seconds later.

"The vehicle itself is lost," Jon Olansen, the Morpheus project manager, told reporters. "But we are working currently on gathering more data and information to understand what occurred in the test and how we can learn from it and move forward."

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Olansen said operators have recovered memory devices from the wreckage and will be pulling the data off of them for clues to the cause of the accident.

"From early indications, it seems to be within our guidance navigation control system, seems to point toward hardware," Olansen said.

In a written statement, NASA said failure is "part of the development process for any complex spaceflight hardware," and designers will learn from whatever caused Thursday's crash.

The Morpheus lander is designed to carry up to 1,100 pounds of cargo for a future moon mission. Its engines are fueled partly by methane, which the agency says is easier to handle and store than other propellants such as liquid hydrogen or hydrazine.

Olansen said the space agency has spent about $7 million on the project over two and a half years, and the test lander lost Thursday was "in the $500,000 class." Another one is currently under construction at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and may be complete in two to three months.

"We want to make sure that what we learn today gets applied to that next vehicle," he said.

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CNN's John Couwels contributed to this report.

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