OPINION: Commercial space learns a valuable, painful lesson
It’s been a bad week for commercial space companies. On Tuesday, Oct. 28, Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo ship Deke Slayton was destroyed when the Antares rocket carrying it exploded just after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Barely three days later, on Friday, Oct. 31, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed east of Mojave. No one was hurt in the explosion of the unmanned Antares, but SpaceShipTwo was crewed by two pilots, one of whom was killed – the other was badly injured.
The investigations into the two accidents are likely to continue for some time. For now, it’s known that the Antares was exploded by the range safety officer who activated the Flight Termination System after a failure occurred in the rocket’s first stage. Many observers reported noticing something detach from the rocket before the first explosion.
Although no one was hurt, there was damage to the launch pad, and 5,000 lbs (2,268 kg) of cargo intended for the International Space Station were lost. These included food, scientific experiments, as well as Planetary Resources’ Arkyd 3 demonstrator. Despite being a major setback for Orbital Sciences, which has already lost market share and drawn criticism for its use of 40-year old Soviet rocket engines. In terms of spaceflight however, at least no one was killed. The same cannot be said for the fatal crash of Richard Branson’s very popular SpaceShipTwo.
Shortly after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo detached from its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnight Two it activated its engine, at that point, something went tragically wrong causing one pilot to be killed – and the other to be seriously injured.
No doubt about it, it’s been a tough week. It’s impossible to say at this early stage what the future holds for either Orbital or Virgin Galactic. The public, long on the side of these private firms, have now begun questioning their assertions. What’s important to remember, though, is that spaceflight is a dangerous, hard business, and even after 56 years, it is far from “routine.” The events of this week should be taken as a reminder of that. Although no one wants accidents to happen, they do serve a purpose in spaceflight. Explosions on launch pads and fiery crashes in the desert used to be commonplace – when the U.S. was learning the hard lessons of the black sky. Now? Private space, not wanting to take lessons from NASA, is re-learning what the Space Agency was taught all those years ago.
In the years following World War II, test pilots accepted the risk in testing high-performance aircraft, and the failures were used to fine-tune the vehicles and improve them. From those tests we broke the sound barrier with the X-1, achieved spaceflight for the first time with the X-15, and ultimately developed the Space Shuttle. The constant array of rocket explosions along what would become Florida’s Space Coast – were just a part of the development process.
You launch a rocket, blow it up, fix whatever blew it up, build a new one and hopefully the next time it blows up it’s for a different reason. Over time, rockets have become more reliable, the launches more frequent, to the point that people have forgotten that they’re extremely powerful, complex and dangerous devices.
According to NASA researcher Jim Slade: “I heard Neil Armstrong one time say that, today, they’re shocked when the shuttle doesn’t work every time, but they were always surprised when the Saturn V did.”
It’s important to remember that NASA has been in the business of launching rockets since 1958. Private spaceflight is still fairly new, even when the principles of rocketry are tried and true. The Antares rocket made its inaugural flight in 2013, and Tuesday’s failed launch – was only the fifth flight. Also worthy of note is the fact that roughly 75 percent of all new launch vehicles encounter failures of this sort – during the first three flights.
As a point of comparison, the Soviet N1 rocket from which the Antares rocket engines were at least partially derived; the N1 flew four flights and exploded every time. Orbital has had greater success with Antares, having flown four successful missions thus far. However, the use of the old Soviet engine in the modern Antares is a matter of concern. One that apparently Orbital itself has – as the company has put out a call for new engines for the booster. Some reports – suggest that another Russian engine might be considered to replace the AJ-26.
Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice president and former NASA astronaut, addressed the issue of the engines after the explosion.
“As we went through testing, we did discover there were some effects of aging since they had been in storage for awhile, including some stress corrosion cracking. That’s what we [corrected] with weld repairs and other inspections.”
The issue was brought up in a 2012 interview by Wired.com of Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX ), in the interview the billionaire harshly criticized Orbital, saying it: “…has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke. It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s — I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.”
However, it’s not clear yet that the Soviet engines were connected with the failure of the launch. Whether they were or were not, such failures are part of the dangerous game of spaceflight.
What’s disturbing about these accidents was not that they occurred. What is distressing, is that these firms, partially, or as a whole, are part of what has been dubbed ‘NewSpace.’ NewSpace, has been less than kind toward NASA’s record.
One notable example is a sign that was held up when SpaceShipOne completed the Ansari X Prize which read “SpaceShipONE, Government=ZERO.” A strange observation considering the actual historical record — 2 suborbital flights versus more than 160 successful crewed, orbital missions including 6 Moon landings, plus countless unmanned satellites and probes.
Back in January of 2013, Spaceflight Insider’s editor, Jason Rhian, described the hubris of the NewSpace proponents in an Op-Ed for a small blog. “No NewSpace firm has launched a single astronaut into orbit. They have not landed anything on the surface of the Red Planet, or any other planet for that matter, and haven’t sent probes to orbit our nearest celestial neighbor. Check your egos at the door. What NewSpace has done is impressive, but they are stating statistics about things that might happen and rockets that might fly—in the past tense. Pride goeth before a fall, and when this toddler falls off its high chair, it is going to be a very far fall indeed.”
Jeffrey Kluger, a senior writer at Time magazine and co-author of the Apollo 13 opus Lost Moon with Jim Lovell, was particularly damning of Richard Branson. “I visited Branson’s self-styled spaceport in the Mojave last year to watch a brief test flight of his spacecraft. The mission that day was intended more as an air show than anything else—part of a pep rally for the hundreds of Virgin customers who would be attending to hear about the company’s progress. All of them had reserved a seat and paid a deposit toward their $200,000 ticket for a trip that—if it ever happened—would last just 15 minutes and ascend to just 62 miles (100 kilometers), which technically counts as being in space, but only to the extent that riding a jet ski off the beach in Ft. Lauderdale counts as going to sea.”
Kluger does not mention that NASA hasn’t gone much farther than that since the last Moon landing, way back in 1972. Nevertheless, the Space Shuttle did fly 135 missions with two fatal accidents—an astonishing record for such a complicated machine.
This week’s accidents—the first to befall commercial spacecraft—show that private industry is not immune to the problems that the U.S. government has encountered.
Space technology is risky no matter who flies it. So far public response to these two accidents appears to be acceptance and encouragement to move on. “Onward and upward,” say many comments online.
This is not the reaction when accidents have taken place solely under NASA’s watch. Perhaps this is because these were not solely taxpayer-funded efforts (Antares and Cygnus were developed with taxpayer-provided funds), there does not seem to be the widespread notion that we saw in abundance after the Columbia disaster that spaceflight is “too” dangerous.
Orbital and Virgin will recover. The flaws in the Antares and SpaceShipTwo will, no doubt, be fixed. That is the history of rocketry and spaceflight. But this week the private sector learned an important lesson. Spaceflight is not safe and it’s not “routine,” and it won’t be for a long time.
Two terms kept cropping up on news channels that were reporting the twin space disasters this week: “passionate” and “enthusiastic.” These traits are the hypergolic fuel which has propelled space endeavors through the long, lean years. However, the structure of the vehicle that uses those fuels – is comprised of sturdy materials which include, experience, patience and wisdom.
These titanium-strong substances are acquired through many lessons, mistakes and epiphanies. New, private, commercial – whatever you choose to call it – has just learned two hard lessons. As Rhian noted – the toddler has taken a very hard fall. It now needs to dust itself off, accept the cause of these incidents – with humility – and move forward.
However, one part of this process, needs to be an acknowledgement – that their reach might be exceeding their grasp, that not everything those with five decades of experience has to say should be ignored just because they are “old” and that having a large following on Twitter and a flashy ad campaign – allows one to sidestep basic tenants of engineering.
As part of the Rogers Commission which investigated the loss of space shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51L, Nobel physicist Richard P. Feynman made the following, relevant, quote:
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled…”
The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.