Last night, a rocket carrying a resupply capsule for the International Space Station (ISS) blew up just seconds after liftoff. The Antares rocket, made and operated by Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) for NASA's commercial resupply program, the Cygnus cargo capsule, and were completely destroyed, but fortunately no injuries were reported.
There are a couple first steps that are par for the course when this sort of thing happens. An accident investigation board (led by OSC) will be convened to determine the exact cause of the problem. Until that happens and corrective action is taken, the Antares rocket will be grounded. Meanwhile, other cargo flights to the ISS — the US SpaceX Dragon, the Japanese HTV (a.k.a. Kountori), and Russian Progress (Europe's ATV cargo flights ended this summer) — will continue to supply the six-person ISS crew.
As we've explained before, space launch is very, very difficult. If you take sensitive equipment and involve it in a barely controlled explosion over and over again, things will eventually go sideways. That's why the contingencies for this sort of things are well thought out and the immediate aftermath basically goes to script. It's what happens afterwards that's still up in the air.
This flight was indicative of NASA's effort to switch to commercial companies for ISS logistics. While this mishap doesn't mean that the ISS crew is in danger of starvation or death — because of the fickle nature of space launch, the ISS carries a reserve of food and water — it may result in a bit of juggling on the cargo manifests for future flights.
Rockets fail, and brand-new rocket designs are especially likely to fail. It basically takes 10 launches before a design is considered reliable. Another 10 launches are needed before the systems and procedures for a new rocket are considered to have been validated. This was the fifth launch of Antares.
More significant will be the political implications of this accident. The NASA shift away from using government-owned and -operated rockets to relying on commercial providers has involved some drama, and a highly visible failure like this will inevitably crop up in future debates, particularly since the US launch industry is already turbulent and chaotic.
This was OSC's third launch failure in five years, and it could precipitate a loss of confidence by investors.
On top of this, NASA just signed new contracts for the next phase of their effort to develop the ability to send crew to and from the station on board commercial vehicles. Although there are no plans to use this rocket for crew and OSC is not making a bid to transport crew to the ISS, this accident will be used — fairly or not — to justify concerns about the involvement of non-government actors in spaceflight. More generally, this launch failure will probably show up in other conversations as new entrants like SpaceX continue in their ongoing bids to capture more of the market for US government space launch.
The launch industry portion of this drama will be interesting to watch. Six months ago, OSC and Alliant Techsystem's (ATK) Aerospace Group announced a merger. Both companies are in the midst of hashing out all of that reorganization, which could substantially complicate the investigation and subsequent return to flight. Beyond that, this is also OSC's third launch failure in five years: Launch vehicles failed in 2009 during the launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and in a later 2011 launch of NASA's Glory mission. While those failures were very different from this one — they involved problems with the shroud that protects the payload during ascent — this most recent issue could precipitate a loss of confidence by investors during this transition phase.
The explosion of the rocket caused substantial damage to the launch pad and facilities. This could prove a bit troublesome, since the pad is not technically a NASA launch pad. The launch facility is neighbor to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, but was carved off to be run as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), a commercial entity. Although MARS has received substantial support (financial and otherwise) from the State of Virginia and NASA, there's no word how this will affect MARS's plans and balance sheet, or if they will need another boost from outside.
MARS has just the one launch pad, and future flights of the Antares rocket were the only flights listed on their manifest of upcoming flights. The time needed for the investigation and return to flight will, therefore, give a window to MARS to repair the pad.
The Russian-built, US-refurbished AJ-26 engine use in the first-stage has attracted a lot of early attention as a potential culprit. Russian media reports the Russian manufacturer said that their engines were operating properly. Preliminary statements from OSC also indicate that they were not picking up any engine anomalies. However, while there's no direct early evidence that the engine was at fault, the AJ-26 has come under suspicion because of earlier problems during testing. In a 2011 test, the engine started leaking propellant and caught fire. More recently, during a 2014 test at NASA's Stennis Space Center, an AJ-26 exploded.
OSC already had plans underway to replace the AJ-26.
In all, it will be some time before anyone makes a final determination about the reasons for Tuesday's accident. The cause of the May 2014 test of the AJ-26 engine still has not been finally determined, and this investigation will be just as thorough and cautious. So for now, it's a vivid reminder that space is pretty goddamned hard.
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