Space industry says setbacks won’t curb our ambitions

NASA will continue to rely heavily on commercial space ventures, Jeff Foust writes.

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Authorities inspect the wreckage of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip 2 which crashed during a test flight. The disaster has put on hold plans to send fare-paying tourists into space.
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Two commercial space flight accidents in the United States in less than a week, one destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS) and one killing a test pilot, are setbacks for individual companies. However, many in the space industry believe that the accidents will not in the long run deter commercial space ventures or NASA’s increasing reliance on them.

On 28 October an Antares rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corporation suffered a failure in one of the two engines that power its first stage. The rocket fell back to Earth, crashing next to its launch pad on the Virginia coast.

The accident destroyed a Cygnus spacecraft carrying more than 2,000 kilograms of cargo for the ISS. That cargo included food and equipment for the station’s crew and scientific experiments, some developed by students, to be performed there.

Three days later a test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane ended in tragedy when the vehicle broke apart seconds after igniting its engine. The vehicle’s co-pilot was killed in the accident and its pilot seriously injured.

Virgin Galactic developed SpaceShipTwo primarily for space tourism, to give people a taste of space flight for $250,000 a ticket. Those plans are now on hold as Virgin Galactic awaits the outcome of an investigation by the US National Transportation Safety Board, the agency that also investigates airline accidents and train derailments.

'Are you going to double down and invest in good old US private
enterprise, or are you going to send the money to Russia?'

Because the two accidents took place days apart, some have suggested they’re evidence of lower quality and safety standards by commercial space companies. However, the two accidents had little in common technically.

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket explodes soon after lifting off from NASA’s base on Wallops Island, Virginia. It is a setback, but is unlikely to kill off commercial space ventures. – Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images

The Antares failure involved the use of a rocket engine originally manufactured in the Soviet Union more than 40 years ago for its equivalent to the American Saturn V Moon rocket. Virgin Galactic’s accident was linked to a unique “feathering” system that raises the spacecraft’s twin tail booms during re-entry. The booms provide stability, like the feathers on a badminton shuttlecock.

But whatever the details, it’s a setback for the industry. “It is a time of reflection for us all,” said Lori Garver, who was second-in-command of NASA from 2009 to 2013, in a speech on 1 November at the SpaceVision 2014 conference in Durham, North Carolina.

Garver advocated for NASA to increase its use of commercial space capabilities to transport cargo and crew to the space station when she was at the agency. She said she remains confident NASA will continue to support those efforts, given its only other option is to extend its reliance on Russia for carrying astronauts to the ISS.

“After all, right now it is your choice if you want to take humans to space. Are you going to double down and invest in good old US private enterprise, or are you going to send the money to Russia?” she asks.

Rick Tumlinson, a long-time commercial space advocate who is chairman of asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries, said in an interview that, in some respects, it was better for SpaceShipTwo to suffer an accident now, in its early test phase. “If it happens now, it’s less likely to happen when there are six celebrities on board.”

Those failures, Tumlinson argues, do show that space flight, by companies or governments, remains difficult. “The thing to do is to acknowledge the challenges we’re facing and make sure we’re doing everything possible to mitigate those challenges,” he said.

Both Orbital and Virgin are looking ahead. Virgin says it has a second SpaceShipTwo 65% complete. It could be ready for test flights by the end of 2015, depending on any modifications the company needs to make as a result of the investigation.

On 5 November Orbital Sciences announced it plans to accelerate work on an upgraded version of its Antares rocket, replacing the Soviet-era engines with a new – although as yet unannounced – and more powerful design. That rocket will be ready for its first launch by late 2016.

Orbital’s CEO, David Thompson, closed out the briefing announcing the company’s plans with this adage: “Per aspera ad astra” – through hardships to the stars – good advice for anyone involved in space endeavours.

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