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NASA Rocket Explodes on Launch; Suspicious Activity on White House Computer Network

Aired October 28, 2014 - 19:00   ET


ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: OUTFRONT tonight, breaking news, a rocket with classified crypto equipment explodes seconds after liftoff just moments ago. The rocket headed for the International Space Station with classified equipment on board.

What went wrong?

We're going to show that to you and find out exactly what happened here with this breaking news.

And more breaking news with new security measures, thousands of federal buildings across the United States as ISIS ramps up calls for terror attacks on the U.S. homeland.

Let's go "OUTFRONT."

The breaking news tonight, a failed NASA rocket launch ended moments ago with a dramatic and shocked explosion. The launch director just saying that the spacecraft had, quote, "classified crypto equipment on board."

A NASA spokesperson tells CNN there was no indicated loss of life but there was significant damage on the ground.

The launch, an explosion happening over Wallops Island, Virginia. Mission Control desperately trying to assess what went wrong. The launch director saying they must maintain the crash site because -- due to security concerns because of that classified equipment that was on board.

Our Tom Foreman begins our coverage tonight with more.

And Tom, what are you learning? These pictures are stunning.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It's always amazing. This was the first try of this two-stage rocket with a second, more powerful motor than what has been used before. And -- this is the first time this motor has been debuted here.

This Antares rocket was run by Orbital Sciences. They're the ones who are under contract to do this for NASA. They have an almost $2 billion contract for delivering payloads to the space station.

The second stage engine was built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, which is a company which is sub-contracted on this day. Also they have a contract to build the landing system thrusters for the Mars 2020 mission.

Now in terms of what this crypto equipment maybe onboard, I don't quite understand it, and I am trying to get some clarity on that.

But I can tell you this, Erin. They keep people back far enough so that nobody gets hurt when this happens. The reason this didn't happen last night is because a sailboat was within this roughly 1400 square mile safety zone where they keep people away just in case something goes wrong.

But any time you launch any kind of spacecraft like this and you have a new component on it that raises questions about exactly how everything comes together and whether or not it's going to work properly. And just for point of reference here, a short while ago, one of our guests on CNN said this is not as easy as it looks.

Here is something to bear in mind. When a rocket like this takes off, it is burning so much fuel and it is moving so quickly, and it is changing altitude and temperature and weight so quickly, truly every second it is a different type of aircraft or spacecraft because it's changing so dramatically.

It's hard to do this. So one little thing can go wrong and you could have this cataclysmic results like you're seeing here. Nobody hurt. But I will say this, Erin, in addition to the supplies that were being carried in the payload which is called the Cygnus, and usually the supplies are about 5,000 pounds of scientific experiments going up.

For a scientific experiment to reach the point of being on board a spacecraft like this, it has gone through a tremendous amount of development and investment. That equipment is now lost and the knowledge that was expected to come from it is also lost. I will guarantee you there are researchers all over right now who can hardly breathe because they are saying, we just lost a tremendous investment in the future of what we are going to do with all of this.

This is really a cataclysmic thing. It doesn't just look like it, it truly is -- Erin.

BURNETT: It truly is. And again, as we were reporting a launch director saying on the NASA feed from the launch, as we were hearing this, that there was classified crypto equipment on board. They're now talking about securing the crash site due to the classified nature of what was on board that -- this rocket.

I want to bring in our aviation analyst Miles O'Brien, Bill Nye, the science guy and the CEO of the Planetary Society.

And let me just ask each of you -- we're going to show this because, Miles, you've had a chance now to look at this. When you see this video, you can see a lot more than the rest of us can see. What can you see that possibly could have gone so cataclysmically wrong?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, you have to remember, Erin, what we're talking about here is -- it's a lot of -- a lot of power and a lot of potential (ph) energy unleashed through a lot of plumbing that has to be perfect. And ever so slight a leak will ruin your day. And that's all it takes, is a slight amount of turbo pump that fails or a pipe that goes -- that springs a leak one way or another. And that's all it takes to go from a good day to a bad day.

You're going from zero on the ground to 17,500 miles an hour in the course of about 8.5 minutes. So that's some serious acceleration and you're unleashing a lot of potential energy when you mix that basically kerosene fuel with an oxidizer and unleashing it. So what is unclear to me is whether the rocket itself exploded or whether there were some sort of problem that was detected either by computers or by the human beings at the consoles that forced them to hit the red button which will in fact destroy it or what we call range safety reasons.

BURNETT: And, Bill, you hear what Miles is talking about, when you look at this, what do you see, just in terms of the timing, the moment at -- when this happened, how the explosion itself actually? You know, you see it shoot up, right? It starts to move higher, and then you see that explosion sort of in the middle move down.

BILL NYE, CEO, THE PLANETARY SOCIETY: And you listen to the flight director, it sounds like they were expecting it to work just fine and then something went catastrophically wrong. I don't think -- it may be. But I don't think anybody pushed the button. I think Miles is dead on with the plumbing problem.

BURNETT: And when you said -- hold on, Bill, I just want to interrupt you. When you say no one pushed the button, you're meaning no one pushed the button to abort this? This wasn't --

NYE: It doesn't look like. But of course, you know, I may be wrong, especially on a classified mission. There could be something we don't know about. But it looks to me -- investigation will figure this out, but it looks to me like there was a leak and the amount of fuel that is pushed through this plumbing in a very short amount of time makes a leak a catastrophic problem. And it's not like a fuel leak in your car and you think you smell gas and you go to the gas station.

The pressures are so high, the fire starts really fast. It's just -- it's just heart-breaking, guys. It's so much investment, so much time, effort and energy, and then things go wrong. But it does show you that the industry is in a sense mature that nobody got hurt. This catastrophic thing and really nobody got injured. But we spent a lot of money in a few moments.

BURNETT: Miles, we talked about the contract here was $2 billion. Obviously -- and I want to talk -- we're going to talk much more about this. There was a significant -- I'm looking here at the payload. A classified crypto technology on here. We don't exactly know what this was, we don't know whether there was any relationship between this and what just happened. But there was significant classified U.S. investigations materials. That's how it's classified here.

Miles, I remember where I was when the Challenger exploded. It is -- it is a very rare and horrible thing when these things happen. Obviously, the miracle is here that there were not -- not anyone actually on board. It was an unnamed -- an unmanned expedition.

But how surprised are you that something like this could happen, given from what we at least understand that they expected this to be a very routine process?

O'BRIEN: There is nothing routine about going to space, period. And I -- you know, I covered probably close to 50 shuttle missions in my career, Erin, and I was always frankly surprised when they got to orbit safely because they had a million moving parts in there, frankly, all from the lowest bit. It was a very -- it's a very difficult thing to get to space and I never forgot that. And none of the astronauts every fly -- flew on a shuttle or any rocket would ever forget that or tell you that it's routine.

It's not routine. The engineers, the astronauts, they make it sound and look routine but it is not. And these sorts of accidents are just -- you know, it's a big challenge. And the laws of physics are way against us to get to space and these things will happen on occasion.

I do want to clear something up, though. There is nothing on the space station that is involved in spying or crypto graphic activity. So I want people to be very clear on that. But the International Space Station is -- it's 16 nations, NASA and the Russians taking the lead and there is no spying on anybody.

I don't know where this little piece of information comes from and what particular piece of equipment they are concerned about on the rocket itself, but let's not get the impression here that this was a spy mission. This is a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

BURNETT: Let me -- let me bring in Tom Foreman because you do have more on this. Because, again, it's the launch director from the NASA feed who was saying it had, quote, "classified crypto equipment on board."

Tom Foreman, what more do you know?

FOREMAN: Yes. Miles is exactly right there. What this could be referring to -- we have to get clarity on this, Erin, but what this could be referring to is there are simply experiments on board that have proprietary information. For certain researchers or certain companies, there could be things involved with the telemetry of the rocket itself or the way that it's being launched or controlled.

All of that can be proprietary and all of that can be to some degree being protected or in a crypto field. It -- as Miles said, doesn't mean it has anything to do with spying or the CIA or military usage or anything else. It might, but it's not likely. This was basically just a resupply mission.

BURNETT: Right. And we don't at this point know and if any indication other than as we've said classified crypto equipment so no idea who would have been the owner of that essentially. FOREMAN: Exactly.

BURNETT: Let me just bring in the conversation now, Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut.

Leroy, when you watch this, you must have many, many emotions. When you see this, what do you think happened? What could have gone wrong?

LEROY CHIAO, FORMER NASA ASTRONAUT: Well, I agree with everyone who's been speaking here. And you know, it's too early to speculate. Probably too early in the mission, I mean, just a few seconds off the pad to have been an abort, probably some kind of mechanical failure, either the fuel lines or a computer or something or engine something like that. The investigation will show it.

Yes, I mean, the thing is, now that the resupply mission has failed, you know, it kind of leaves the crew in a bit of a lurch. Nothing immediate. But during my mission, during Expedition 10, we had a shortage of food, water and oxygen, and we were within a week of running out of water and would have had to abort off the station before the next resupply ship arrived. And so the, you know, kind of the bigger question is I'm sure there are a lot of (INAUDIBLE) people staying up all night tonight to figure out what to do about this.

BURNETT: All right. Well, we're going to take a brief break. I will say to this point that you're all making -- my understanding, again according to the log that I have here, is they have about 1,360 pounds of food on board this rocket. So that was going to be something very important for the International Space Station.

We have an eyewitness who saw this explosion happen and they're going to join us right after this break. We're going to hit a pause and we'll be back in just a couple of moments.


BURNETT: Breaking news, an unmanned NASA rocket exploding in a huge fireball tonight just seconds after takeoff from the East Coast of the United States. This is just off the coast of Virginia.

You see this rocket goes off. At this point everything looks normal. And then suddenly, as you'll see, everything goes horribly wrong in this launch.

So you can see exactly there, that moment. It is slated to take between 8 and 10 minutes for it to get all the way to orbit as we've been talking about, going from zero to 17,500 miles an hour in the space of just moments. It was loaded with just about 5,000 pounds of cargo headed for the International Space Station.

NASA also said that the rocket had, quote-unquote, "classified crypto equipment on board." We can't tell you any more than that at this time. At this time, though, there are no reports of loss of life.

I want to bring in eyewitness Ed Encina, and eyewitness reporter for the "Baltimore Sun." And Ed, I know we just played this so everyone could see it actually,

the launch go off, things appeared to be normal as we're playing it again, and just as it goes out of that first shot and you turn your head to look higher, things go horribly wrong.

What did you see?

ED ENCINA, BALTIMORE SUN REPORTER, EYEWITNESS TO FAILED LAUNCH: Yes, I mean, I think the big thing here is that, you know, this rocket took off from Wallops Island which is an area that -- you know, you can't really -- you can't really get very close to. I watched this from about three miles away across the marsh and everyone who's on here, they brought out their binoculars, they brought out their cameras.

I had my camera out and just a couple of hours ahead to kind of, you know, stake out an area and I think everything just kind of -- you immediately thought everything was fine because you see this big, you know, big -- the launch and everything just kind of -- it brightened up the sky. And then all of a sudden you see a big fireball probably, you know, five seconds into the launch.

And you knew that something had gone wrong. After that, you know, immediately you saw the plume of smoke kind of come from the launch pad and some of the -- about probably 100 yard area around the launch pad was all in flames.

BURNETT: So the launch pad area was in all in flames. So you're saying, just because it's hard when we're watching this, Ed, to totally understand. From where you were standing on the ground, it was about -- again, that takeoff looked kind of picture perfect, you're saying it was about five seconds from takeoff to explosion?

ENCINA: Yes. Probably. I mean, I've never seen one of these rocket launches before, but it was a situation where you see those boosters and they brighten up the sky and then all of a sudden you think everything is going right and then like probably about five seconds in, you noticed that there is a big fireball. And it lit up the sky. It was -- I mean, you heard a big boom. Usually you hear those kind of booms from what I hear from some of the other observers who live in this area, but you hear and it lights up the sky.

It's a big deal when these rockets go off because this kind of a resort town in the Chincoteague area of Virginia and on the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay so -- go ahead.

BURNETT: How loud -- no, no, I'm sorry. I just -- when you were talking about the boom sort of that happened and -- how loud was it? I mean, to your -- to your ear, how loud did that sound?

ENCINA: Oh, it was loud. I mean it was -- I mean, you kind of -- you definitely felt your knee shake a little bit. I don't know how that compares to how these launches are normally because from what I hear, you know, they are loud. Everyone was kind of talking around me about how, you know, you could just kind of -- that is a big part of it, is how close you are to the launch. And I know this launch had been seen, you know, throughout the Eastern Seaboard, but -- you know, that's why people come here to do it. I was one of the people who came down and wanted to watch it.

BURNETT: And I guess the question I have for you, is at what point did you know something had gone wrong? When you first watch one of these as a lay person, you watch the rocket explode and it explodes in a fireball, right? And then you see sort of this perfect white rocket just kind of emerge out of the plume, right? And that's that moment where it's so magnificent. At what point did you know something went wrong?

ENCINA: I think when probably like around five seconds after the launch. And you notice that that rocket wasn't going up into the sky. And there was a big fireball probably around -- I don't know, about 100 to 200 yards above the ground, and it was a bright fireball, the kind of encompassed the sky. Like that -- it fell down toward the ground. There's a lot of brush around that area because it is kind of marshy land there.

And all of a sudden you saw a lot of -- I think that's when you really noticed it. When you saw all the fire along the ground, along the launch pad. And obviously a few moments later you hear all the fire engines come across the bridge into the -- into the site.

BURNETT: And we don't at this point, Ed, I should say, we know that this was an unmanned rocket, we know that they obviously did this on Wallops Island and make sure that they didn't -- they didn't do it yesterday, for example, when there was a sailboat in their, quote- unquote, range. So that -- but they do say there's significant damage on the ground to both property, equipment vehicles.

At this point we don't know if there is loss of life, we don't believe that there is, but we don't know.

What happened immediately afterwards in terms of the emergency vehicles and, you know, where were they -- where were they coming from? How many were there?

ENCINA: There were a few. I mean, there is one bridge that kind of goes on to where the launch site is, and immediately you saw, you know, the bright red lights from over -- coming over the bridge, probably within a matter of, you know, seconds, probably about a minute -- probably about a minute or two, you immediately saw that.

But I think -- like I said, if you talk about, you know, the loss of the structure there, I mean, you could see -- you could tell just by the fire and how high the flames were from as far away as I was, which is about three or four miles that there was a massive catastrophe of destruction in terms of property and stuff there at the site -- right there at the launch site.

BURNETT: All right. Ed, stay with us. We're getting some new images in. When we get those, I'm going to show them to all of our viewers here. We've got new images, new angles coming in.

But, Ed, please don't go away. I just want to bring in Charles Lieu, an astrophysicist, along with Leroy Chiao, back with us, a former NASA astronaut. Charles, when you hear what Ed was just talking about just from three

miles away that one of the things that stood out the most to me from what he just said was that as he watched this and when -- about five seconds in, when the explosion happened, he felt the earth shake.

DR. CHARLES LIU, ASTROPHYSICIST: Yes. That is quite expected. There is a tremendous amount of fuel load on there, Erin, as many as the previous commentators had been saying. What I could see from here and my rocket scientist, pure expert can be much more expert about this, it seems to be that the rocket just simply stopped. The thing kind of went up and then straight back down again. It wasn't a wild, crazy, for example, spiraling rocket going out of control.

So it does seem like something just cut off, either the rockets themselves failed or the fuel to the rockets stopped somehow and started going elsewhere. But that much fuel, making the ground shake is a perfectly normal thing to happen. And it's very fortunate again NASA took -- take the proper precaution. The Wallops Island launch site is just south of Delaware and over the Atlantic Ocean.

These rockets go over the Atlantic so there was no loss of life. It's just a very sad thing, though, that more than 4800 pounds of good equipment, including scientific equipment and food for the International Space Station flight crew has been lost.

BURNETT: Yes. And that food, I think we should emphasis to all of our viewers, you know, it takes a long time and a lot, a lot to get an expedition like this together and we don't know what the, quote- unquote, "crypto equipment" is on this. We do know, we do know that there were, in terms of food, let me get the numbers. There were nearly 1400 pounds of food, which is desperately needed by people on the International Space Station.

I think, Leroy, as an astronaut, I mean, this is something that we should be emphasizing, right?

CHIAO: Absolutely. During my mission, during Expedition 10, we had a foot shortage, and in fact we came within a week of running out of water and two weeks of running out of food. And of course oxygen was getting low, too, before the resupply shipment arrived. And so there was really no margin. I mean, that's Progress, Russian Program had to arrive, otherwise we would have to abandon ship.

And so now I think the situation is not quite as dire as that. I think they have some margin now but still the question remains, you've lost an entire cargo flight and now you've got to make it up within a certain amount of time. And so, as I mentioned before, I'm sure there are a lot of NASA planning folks working all night tonight to figure out what to do about that.

BURNETT: And Charles, let me just ask you another question here.

LIU: Sure.

BURNETT: When you talk about -- you could have seen the rocket, in this moment when we're watching the actual explosion, right, that it could have pulled away and spiraled as opposed to sort of just falling back which is what it seems to be here in this giant fireball. What --

LIU: That's right.

BURNETT: In terms of what could have gone wrong, what would be the difference between those two things?

LIU: If the fuel remained flowing to the engine, and the engines were still operational, but somehow the rocket's overall ability to guide itself, let's say vertical or on the path that it was planning to go on failed, then you can imagine something almost looking like a fireworks display, right, a pinwheel or something flying. And then the spacecraft spirals out of control before it crashes somewhere or explodes.

In some of the older inversions, let's say, in the 1960s, during the early parts of the U.S. space program, some famously catastrophic collisions, disasters happened there, also with no loss of life. But that's what had happened. In this case, though, if it goes straight up and straight back down again, it's more likely that the engine simply stopped working and who knows why that happened. I, of course, can't tell at all despite looking at the footage.

BURNETT: All right. Well, thank you, at least, for explaining that as best as you could.

Everyone, please stay with us. We do have some new images we're literally loading into our system now. It's a remote place but we do have new images that we've been able to obtain. We're going to get them for you and have them on the other side of this break. We'll be right back.


BURNETT: We're back with major breaking news tonight, about an hour ago, an unmanned NASA rocket exploded six seconds after liftoff from the Virginia shore.

We want to show you that launch in slow motion. You can see the moment of ignition, all right? What appears to be a successful takeoff and just a few seconds, about five seconds, eyewitnesses were just telling us, you see it go out of the frame and then you look up and then -- there you see that huge explosion as something goes so horribly wrong. Halts the rocket. Eyewitnesses were just telling us a moment ago, Ed Encina was there, and he said he literally felt the ground beneath him shake as it exploded. The rocket was a NASA contracted rocket, dropped straight back to the ground.

So, it didn't spiral, it just fell back and fell straight it. It had been loaded with 5,000 pounds of cargo and equipment. One NASA transmission prior to the launch mentioned there was, quote, "classified crypto equipment" on board. All of that, along with 1400 pounds of food, which was going up to the crew that is currently on the International Space Station, that needs that food.

We just got new video shot by someone watching the launch. This has audio of the people around them and I want to play it for you.


BURNETT: You can literally see the light change there.

I want to bring Tom Foreman in.

Tom, before you start with your latest, I wanted to play again that footage we just got from people who were right there on the ground. We're playing the slow-mo now and I'll play it again. Because you literally see the entire light along the horizon change in this video filmed by someone who was just nearby.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, what you are seeing here, Erin, is roughly three quarter of a million pounds of thrust being unleashed, because this thing blows apart here. And when you see that, of course you're going to get a big shock wave or a big explosion coming out, and that is why they keep people so far away.

I will say this, Erin, as we watch the slow motion of this rocket going off --

BURNETT: Yes. And we're going to play that again now. This is a slow motion, everybody, of the takeoff. Go ahead, Tom.

FOREMAN: Yes, I'll tell you, almost the bottom two thirds of this rocket are the first stage, the first stage is a liquid-fueled stage, it uses liquid oxygen and basically rocket propellant which is actually a sort of a derivative of kerosene. That is not the term for it but that is what is being used here.

Oxygen has to be poured into it because it's simply burning so fast and so powerful, you can't rely on oxygen in the air. And quite clearly, when it starts blowing up, it is in the bottom two thirds and that is where the first stage is pushing this thing skyward and was going to push it for about four minutes before the second stage would kick in.

So, that's a tremendous amount of force just being released there when there is so sort of cataclysmic failure in the first stage, Erin.

BURNETT: And as you talk about the stages, I'm just literally reading here, Tom, what we have from the mission overview from the company Orbital which had a $2 billion contract for this. They said it would take 10 minutes from takeoff until this rocket was actually in orbit.

So, as Miles O'Brien was saying, that is about 8-10 minutes going from zero to 17,500 miles an hour. And when you talk about this happening a few seconds in, is there any sense from your understanding how fast it was going at that time?

FOREMAN: Well, what's happening right now is it's not that it's going so fast right now. It's just exerting a tremendous amount of energy to break free of gravity. One of the reasons that it's going 16,000, 17,000 miles an hour when it reaches the height is because it's moved out of the atmosphere, where if you were simply falling through space, Erin, you might be going 700, 800, 900 miles an hour there, because there is nothing to hold you back.

But here, when you are fighting gravity, you are fighting the inertia of the rocket not moving and you're fighting atmosphere, it's just a tremendous amount of force, not speed yet. Speed will come. But it starts with the enormous amount of force.

BURNETT: Right. Which I guess in the physics is important distinction, you talking about force, you're talking about the fuel and the power and the thrust, as opposed to the speed at the initial few seconds in.

Let me just bring in now, former astronaut Mark Kelly. Of course, Captain Kelly knows more about this than anyone out there.

When you see this, Mark, what do -- what do you see? From the video we are showing but also the video that someone filmed from on the ground where people were watching, where you literally at the moment of explosion, you see the whole sky turn from light to dark.

MARK KELLY, FORMER NASA ASTRONAUT (via telephone): Well, yes. It is a lot of fuel and kerosene and a big explosion. As Tom said, it takes a lot of propellant to get a spacecraft of that size moving 25 times the speed of sound. So, when it fails, it is usually pretty catastrophic.

The one thing that concerns me, looking at the video, where did it fall? It obviously fell within the center and did it do damage to the launch pad? That is a significant issue. We know the rocket failed. But Orbital Sciences and SpaceX is there an ability to resupply the space station and now, at least temporarily, and certainly with this payload.

But, you know, how does that impact future orbital sciences flights? It seems like it could have a significant impact to operations on board the International Space Station.

BURNETT: So, you are saying it could have a significant impact -- let me ask you because you know -- because you've been here, when we talk about the fact that -- let me pull these numbers up again. Almost 1,400 pounds of food were going up there and that is obviously -- how soon until they can resupply? How long until something else can go up?

KELLY: Well, what will happen is -- they have to do an investigation, and orbital won't want to launch until they figure out what happened with this rocket. That rocket uses an RD-180 engine which is a Russian engine, which is historically incredibly reliable. So, they need to do an investigation first.

You know, the impact on the space station, you can mitigate that by moving let's say on the next Space X launch, take some stuff off and put more food on, but what you are taking off might be scientific pay loads.

So, there's going to be -- there is going to have to be some debate and managing of the uplift capability. But we think about these things far in advance and just losing this rocket today isn't going to have an impact tomorrow, but over time that payload not getting there certainly will.

BURNETT: And, Commander Mark Kelly, let me ask you something else in terms of the payload. You know, we're now hearing from the launch commander was making some comments on the NASA line feed that we have. And they said the Cygnus spacecraft, that's what they were referring to here, does have classified crypto equipment on the spacecraft. Do you have any sense of what that might mean?

KELLY: I don't know exactly what it is. You know, we do not use the International Space Station for military purposes. There is no intelligence collecting from the space station.

So, what I imagine that might be, every spacecraft has a launch that has a destruct system and the ground can communicate with the spacecraft to command it to explode. If it was going to go into a populated area or maybe even in this space, they had a command to terminate the flight after a major anomaly.

Well, that is -- that signal is -- it is done in a way through crypto graphic resources on board the spacecraft, because you wouldn't want somebody -- some hacker on the ground to be able to blow up a rocket. So, there is crypto graphic equipment on board with the range safety system for sure.

BURNETT: All right. Which is -- and I'm glad you are providing this context and color because we didn't have this before.

One other thing you said I wanted to follow up with, Commander, when you were talking about the Russian engine, can you give us more detail, because -- tell me if I heard you wrong, but what I thought I heard you wrong, if was one -- it was one of the most reliable, sophisticated, dependable engines that there is.

KELLY: Well, I wouldn't -- I didn't say sophisticated. I say it's incredibly reliable. We've been using it. Not only Orbital used it, but Lockheed Martin uses it and there have been thousands of RD-180s to launch into space and it is a very reliable engine.

You know, it's an issue that we currently have, a geopolitical issue that we have with the Russian government with access to the engines because we use them in our rockets. I mean, if they made the decision not to allow us to use that engine anymore, not to sell it to us, it actually puts us in a bad spot.

BURNETT: It's something I bet you almost no one watching this was aware of.

Well, Commander, thank you very much. We appreciate it, with all the perspective that you've brought to us.

We're going to take a brief break. We'll be back with more continuing coverage of this breaking news tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BURNETT: Major breaking news tonight: a NASA rocket has exploded just six seconds after liftoff from the east coast of the United States, off of Virginia. We have new video of the explosion. This was taken by an eyewitness. I want to play it for you.


BURNETT: It is incredible when you see that from that angle, just how it takes over the entire sky after you think you've seen the explosion, when you actually see then that secondary explosion. Every angle seems to yield a very different picture on exactly -- I mean, that right there. This explosion happened at 6:22 Eastern Standard Time. So that is about an hour and a 20 minutes ago.

I want to show you the launch in slow motion as we have it now. This is the official NASA television as the rocket went off. Everything appears to be picture perfect. It leaves that screen there and then in slow motion we're going to show you as you look up into the next frame, the rocket continues to be fine but then right about here you see that explosion and then the rocket fell back.

Now, we've had various experts on the show, no one is really sure at this point whether it was perhaps the engine just stopped working, whether perhaps something catastrophic happened and they had to hit a button and abort, it's unclear what might have happened but this explosion almost dropped the rocket straight back to the ground. It didn't spiral. It fell back to the ground.

Tom Foreman has been covering this story for us and you were talking about the fact this was a $2 billion contract here. We know on board there was, quote-unquote, "classified crypto equipment." That is one of the things we know. And we know the explosion as you see in that shot, was so wide that the ground was shaking under eyewitness' feet.

But the scale, though, here of the catastrophe, this is a -- this is a big catastrophe.

FOREMAN: It is a big deal. For Orbital Sciences, they are contract is $1.8 billion and that was for eight different supply missions to the ISS. This was the third of them.

So, that's -- it's a big deal to Orbital Sciences. It's a big deal for Aerojet Rocketdyne, which makes one of the engines on board and also making engines for a 2020 Mars mission. This is all part of the balancing act being done now between NASA and the privatization of the different services here. So, big questions here.

And yes, the experiments on board here, this is important stuff to people out there, Erin. Some of this would look at blood flow from the brain to the heart in zero gravity, that was one of the things being experimented. Another would look at the behavior of meteors as they head into our atmosphere.

So, it represents a tremendous amount of work and investment to get to this point. And as Commander Kelly pointed out a short while ago, the real

question here will be the launch pad. What kind of shape it was in after this happened and whether it is taken out of commission for some period of time, because the next launch from this country that could go to the ISS with supplies is by SpaceX, another private firm out of Los Angeles.

It is the work of Elon Musk, the man who created the Tesla car. That is going to launch no sooner than December and it could also take equipment and supplies and experiments up to the station. That's the plan. That will go from Cape Canaveral, not from up here.

But if this launch facility is taken out of commission for a period of time, it does make a big difference because they are relying a lot more on the Russians, the Europeans, anybody you can to get supplies back and forth, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Tom, thank you very much. As we said, a private company leading this and will be leading the next one as well, which no doubt will become part of the conversation about what went so wrong.

Joining me now is former NASA astronaut Story Musgrave, had been on six space flights, and retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton.

Good to have both you with us.

Story, let me ask you. As we are looking at the newest footage that we have of the explosion and you see the explosion from this angle and then you see it again and after it is over, it sort of takes over the entire screen, giving people a sense of 750 million perhaps pounds of fuel. I mean, this is incredible.

What happened? What do you think could have gone wrong?

STORY MUSGRAVE, FORMER NASA ASTRONAUT (via telephone): I think it is catastrophic failure, and that is either the rockets or the turbo pumps or the tank. And first of all, I do ride in rockets and I could have been on that thing.

And it is scary to see it happen. But then after it goes down, you start to analyze things as to what is going on here. And so, it is a first-stage failure.

BURNETT: And, Colonel, let me ask you in terms of the investigation here, what happens. They are saying now they are going to be the launch director said from NASA that they will maintain the area around the debris for an accident investigation, but also to potential security concerns due to the equipment involved.

What happens now?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET) (via telephone): Well, basically, Erin, they are going to secure the area by making sure nobody gets into it. They're also going to take a look and make sure that anything that might be part of the cause of the accident is revealed. So, they will do a thorough check and in essence go through everything, any piece of debris they can find. And they will look at it for any telltale forensic signs that something went wrong.

They're going to be looking at the possibility of sabotage, even though I don't think that's the case. They're going to be looking for what mechanical failures could have possibly caused this. Was it a system failure, or something else? Those are the kinds of things they will look at. And it will take a while.

BURNETT: And, Story, how significant is this for the space program, for NASA, for the private companies leading this?

MUSGRAVE: It is exceedingly significant and it's massively disappointing. It is a loss, an RP-1 kerosene engine. We have been doing them for 50 years. We should be able to make those as reliable as commercial airlines are. It's a very simple kind of engine and we should be able to make reliable systems as easily as others system, just because it's a rocket.

But here you have a private commercial company that is buying Russian engines. Now, private commercial are supposed to be the entrepreneurs propelling us into the future. We are buying Russian engines, modified Russian engines. The first stage itself is built in Ukraine.

Now, you know, we have the best rocketeers, Erin, that the world has ever known. The Saturn rocket, never, ever -- I'm sorry, but I'm a Saturn person. We never had a catastrophic failure. (INAUDIBLE) on the moon, three years it lifted off.

We know how to do rockets. But between now and 2020 it is estimated that 50 percent of the rockets in space will be Russian.

BURNETT: It's incredible to look at it, talk about this angle. I think adding something completely new to this conversation about this catastrophic explosion that as you're seeing unfold on your screen. Thanks to both of you.

Next, the other breaking news we are just learning about at this hour. Suspicious activity detected on the White House computer system. Obviously, this is a significant story breaking news. We'll be back live at the White House next.


BURNETT: Breaking news: the White House has detected suspicious cyber activity on its own computer network. White House officials scrambling tonight to figure out who is responsible.

Jim Acosta is at the White House.

And, Jim, this is just a late-breaking headline here. But, obviously, this is something that's very concerning and pretty scary for the White House.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Erin. You know, we should point out that the White House is not calling this a hacking. But in recent days, they were picking up on threats to the computer network here at the White House, and in assessing the threats they're picking up what they call an activity of concern on the unclassified network that serves the executive office of the president. In doing that, Erin, what they did is they had to take some of the computer networks down for a while here at the White House.

So, there were some employers here who could not use their computer for sometime while this investigation was under way. We should point out, though, this investigation is ongoing. At this point, they have not been able to determine who was responsible for all of this, and when asked earlier this evening, who is responsible or who did this, they just wouldn't say.

And as for a time frame, we should point out this may have happened at recent as Friday. I was here at the White House on Friday, and I can tell you that there were some employees here at the White House saying that their computer was down. So, a lot of questions and hopefully, we'll get some answers on this soon. But definitely, very interesting and something that doesn't happen very often, Erin.

BURNETT: No. And as Jim pointing out, when they thought the computer system is not working, it was something people actually noticed, which perhaps it is even more significant.

ACOSTA: Absolutely.

BURNETT: All right. Jim, thank you very much.

We're going to take a break. Anderson will be on the other side.