By JAMES DEAN
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An apparent hardware malfunction caused a prototype NASA lander to crash and explode seconds into a test flight Thursday at Kennedy Space Center, destroying the vehicle.
Around 12:40 p.m., the lander called Morpheus rose 10 feet from its pad near the center of the shuttle runway before it turned over, fell to the ground and burst into flames.
A dramatic, larger explosion followed about 12 seconds later, according to video of the event streamed live online and broadcast later in the afternoon on NASA TV.
KSC firefighters controlled the blaze. No one was injured.
NASA officials called the failure a disappointment but said the Morpheus program could continue testing with a new lander in a matter of months.
"We anticipated the potential for this type of scenario, and so we had a second vehicle in work," said Jon Olansen, the project manager from Johnson Space Center. "We look forward to learning from what happened today and preparing ourselves for future testing."
Project Morpheus, named for the Greek god of dreams, was testing an engine that burned liquid oxygen and liquid methane, a technology NASA believed could benefit future landing or in-space propulsion systems.
The program also planned to test a suite of landing sensors that could autonomously detect and avoid hazards, but those were not on board the vehicle that crashed.
As a precaution against the type of mishap that occurred Thursday, they were to be added only after Morpheus had demonstrated a series of successful free flights.
Measuring 10 feet in diameter and weighing 2,300 pounds without fuel, Morpheus arrived at KSC from Houston two weeks ago to begin what was expected to be more than a dozen flights over several months.
They were to culminate in a half-mile hop to a landing in a field resembling a lunar landscape that was built recently at the northwest end of the shuttle runway.
All systems worked properly during a successful test last week with the vehicle tethered to a crane.
The Morpheus team attempted its first free flight Tuesday. The vehicle had barely lifted off when a sensor failure unrelated to Thursday's problem caused an engine cutoff and safe abort of the flight.
On Thursday, engineers stationed in a mobile command center noticed a failure less than a second into the flight that lasted about four seconds, Olansen said.
He said data was still being pulled from memory devices recovered from the wreckage, but early indications pointed to a hardware failure in the lander's guidance, navigation and control system.
"At this point we're still looking into the data," he said. "We will provide more information as we learn more through our investigation."
NASA invested about $7 million in the relatively low-budget Morpheus project over the past two-and-a-half years. The vehicle was worth about $500,000.
Olansen said testing could possibly resume within two to three months with the replacement lander being built, pending the outcome of the failure investigation.
"We want to make sure that what we learn from today gets applied to that next vehicle," he said.