Spaceflight Insider

OPINION: Commercial space learns a valuable, painful lesson

Photo Credit: Joel Kowsky / NASA - Kenneth Brown / NBC News

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.

Despite the fact that NASA has launched more than 160 crews to orbit - and beyond and that commercial space firms have no orbital launches to their credit - the attempt has been made to make so-called "NewSpace" firms as being more accomplished than NASA. Photo Credit: KSC / NASA

Despite the fact that NASA has launched more than 160 crews to orbit – and beyond, and that commercial space firms have no crewed orbital launches to their credit – the attempt has been made to make so-called “NewSpace” firms as being more accomplished than NASA. Photo Credit: KSC / NASA

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.”

Initial speculation places at least some of the blame for the loss of the Orb-3 mission on the use of 40-year-old Russian-made rocket engines. Photo Credit: NASA

Initial speculation places at least some of the blame for the loss of the Orb-3 mission on the use of 40-year-old Russian-made rocket engines. Photo Credit: NASA

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.

Photo Credit: D. Ramey Logan

Photo Credit: D. Ramey Logan

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.

To say that NewSpace's attitude toward the space "establishment" has lacked maturity - is an understatement. Image Credit: Freedom's Phoenix

To say that NewSpace’s attitude toward the space “establishment” has lacked maturity – is an understatement. Image Credit: Freedom’s Phoenix

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.

Richard P. Feynman. Photo Credit: Tamiko Thiel

Richard P. Feynman. Photo Credit: Tamiko Thiel

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

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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.

Reader Comments

I just read Jason Rhian’s 2013 piece http://www.americaspace.com/?p=30537 – I wonder if the haters who attached him will be apologizing any time soon?

Byron, I don’t believe Jason will be receiving that much- deserved apology anytime soon. A very astute individual, he probably realizes that only a few will even say that, indeed, he saw this coming. In all likely-hood the newspace spin-machine will shift into high gear, the anti-NASA harangues and histrionics will become more shrill, and the oldspace/newspace polarization will continue, or perhaps even increase as is the case when a child is corrected and storms off yelling and pouting. I admire Jason and Collin for having the courage and integrity to speak truth to power, which in this case is the Newspace public relations/ social media machine. I only hope they can withstand the onslaught of Newspace attacks and allegations of heresy which will most surely follow.

My heart felt condolences go out to the wife and two children of Michael Alsbury. I also wish Peter Siebold a full and speedy recovery….

You make an observation “Private space, not wanting to take lessons from NASA,..”, please can you provide examples. Who is Private Space? SpaceX regularly praises NASA and the work that they have done? What would classify Delta IV and and Atlas V? They have been very successful in rocket launches. I may be mistaken but on what rocket did the current mars space craft launch on? I am certain that it was not on the Shuttle.

ToMarsAndBeyond

I find it troubling that this opinion states

“Private space, not wanting to take lessons from NASA, is re-learning what the Space Agency was taught all those years ago.”

That cannot be true. Many former NASA employees are working for ULA, SpaceX and others. There is close cooperation between Nasa and ULA/SpaceX and others. Also technical.

I find it quite unfair to accuse especially ULA/SpaceX/Orbital from not wanting to learn from NASA’s lessons of the past. For one, ULA and Orbital are part of NASA’s past. For XCor, Virgin and Blue Origin, I don’t know. But since Blue Origin is cooperation with ULA now, there is the link to the lessens learned by NASA/ULA and that lessons will be applied by ULA.

I do blame NASA and Orbital management for allowing the use of fixer upper rocket engines. This is a bad idea in principle. Even if you perform ground tests, it’s just too risky in principle. You want to avoid risk whereever you can. Space is hard enough as it is already.

Well said to @TOMARSANDBACK, I couldn’t agree more. Albeit it is a good article but it is biased. Because the Federal Government has had a virtual strangle hold on the Space Market. And now finally they are making the change to better themselves. But Everyone makes mistakes Even NASA, how many Astronauts have been lost since NASA has started, Way yo many but that is The price of Glory if you want to achieve wonders. Ya cant make an omlet without breaking a few eggs, old quotes but relevant in this case. It is the Federal Governmant that is to blame in my opinion for both accidents based on this formula.

1. NASA has had a clinch on Space Flight in this country for a very long time.

2.The Gov. has made everything that goes along with Space Flight a monetary basis, from purchasing Rocket Engines and parts for rockets and etc.

3. Forcing Commercial Companies to budget down to the nitty gritty just to stay afloat (buying 40 year old Russian N-33 Engines) just to get their spacecraft into Orbit.

4.Space Cronyism – Giving Comercial a certain company the most of the CCiCAP Award of 9 billion based on Legacy and alleged track record.

5. Instead of purchasing Rocket Engines made right here in the Good Ol’ US of A ( SpaceX Merlin, Sierra Nevada, ATK). They purchase surplus Engines and Boosters from the Russians.

The amount of people that have lost their jobs in the Space Industry just for the Major companies to try and save a buck they out source components for their Rockets.

We need to start making our (US) Governmant and Commercial sectors of the Space Industries alot more fluid with each other, then maybe we wouldnt have to wait so long to get our Astronauts in orbit.

In the words of Spock ” Live Long and Prosper!!!”

I think in this article that you try and tie too many things together. An example “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.”

This article does not mention that the space shuttle was sold to the american people as being able to go to space 50 times a year and cost the american people billions. SpaceShipTwo is still seen as a test spacecraft. All the space powers have had crashes – and they come back from them. We have paid billions for a human space program, but guess what – very few Americans have gone into space. Yes Space is risky and people may die, but people die rock climbing, etc. People want to go to space. You may argue the cost, but the opportunity has not been there. It is kind of sad – that to visit the ISS, you have to go Russia.

Yes – my heart and most Americans hearts go out to the companies that had failures this week. Americans accept risk if the rewards are out there. NASA developed the technology – now other people want a chance to use that technology. Remember 2 decades ago, it was the US Space policy that everything would fly on the shuttle. Then the accidents happened…now we have a govt. (SLS-2017) and commercial spacecrafts (Atlas, Delta, Falcon, etc) and they should work – hand in hand.

Daniel Wisehart

“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.”

There was nothing strange about this at all, but the author apparently missed the point. And by the way, there was no equals sign in the sign that so offended the author, which perhaps explains his confusion. The sign held up after the SpaceShipOne flights is completely correct and appropriate because what it stresses is that this was a 100% privately funded rocket, which needed zero government funding to reach space. Remember that the argument has long been made that large scale projects such as space flight will never be done by private industry but can only be done by the government. This was the source of the Ansari X challenge and prize: to build a privately funded space vehicle. Thankfully this point was not lost on the SpaceShipOne team.

I would be careful to not paint all “New Space” companies with the same brush. Over the years, most “New Space” companies have not been successful and have disappeared from the aerospace landscape.

I would note that Orbital Sciences has been around long enough that I personally would not consider it “New Space” any longer. The fact that Antares is built using “off the shelf” components from several different “Old Space” suppliers to build Antares is another sign that they aren’t “New Space” any longer.

SpaceX, on the other hand, has not been around as long so is most definitely “New Space”. The SpaceX approach to ISS resupply is quite different than that of Orbital Sciences. They’ve built most of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the Dragon spacecraft in house. Recently they announced they’ve built the 100th copy of their Merlin 1D engine. That’s quite an accomplishment for any liquid fueled rocket engine manufacturer, “New Space” or not.

Overall, I would say that “New Space” has brought back market competition which has been sorely lacking, especially in the launch vehicle market, for a very long time. This sort of disruptive change isn’t without pain, but in the long run, we’ll have cheaper, and safer, launch vehicles because of it.

SpaceX has built all components of the Falcon 9 rocket in house. @JEFF FINDLEY. BUt you are correct they are “New Space”. That being said they are the first Commercial US Aerospace company to build their own Rocket and Capsule and fly them and return them from Orbit, the First to go to the ISS and back, not to mention the First Commercial company and the first period to build an Entirely brand new Rocket System in the 21st Century. Not to mention Reenter the Earths atmosphere and touch down 4 Falcon 9 First Stages under their own power. The 5th will be on Dec. 9th, 2014 launch of CRS 5 with the landing to be taking place with a pinpoint landing on a barge in the Gulf of Mexico.

Michael McCabe wrote:

“1. NASA has had a clinch on Space Flight in this country for a very long time.”

No that is not true, NASA is not some independant automuous agency that gets to decide. Congress provides funding for EXACTLY what they can do. They pass legislation that tells them what they CAN NOT DO, like when they told NASA they could not work on inflatable tech any more. Your problem should be with the self interested memebers in congress who insist on the creation of policies that do not allow or push for more free market capitalism above the Karman line.

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