One of the most significant affirmations of privately-operated space exploration was when NASA signed multi-billion-dollar contracts with Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceX to send supply missions to the International Space Station.
You must know by now that the most recent of those scheduled resupply launches ended in disaster on October 28th when the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded seconds after liftoff and was completely destroyed. The vehicle was unmanned and no-one was hurt, but the Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft being launched contained very expensive cargo (I’ve seen estimates of over $200 million). Fortunately the crew of the ISS still has lots of food and other supplies to keep them going for months, but a lot of important equipment was lost.
Even worse news came only days later on October 31 when SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s experimental rocket plane broke up in-flight and crashed, taking the life of the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot, who ejected. SpaceShipTwo was the core of Richard Branson’s plans to take tourists into space in coming years. In spite of reports that the engine exploded soon after it was released from its launch aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, this wasn’t true. Cockpit video has shown that the co-pilot unlocked the plane’s “feathering” system—like a kind of airbrake—while the craft was still under rocket-powered acceleration. Although that should not have deployed the feathering system on its own, aerodynamic forces might have triggered it. The investigation continues.
NASA also has its Commercial Crew Program in which three companies are developing launch and land systems to replace the space shuttle program in taking astronauts into orbit. In October of last year, one of the contenders, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s “Dream Chaser” lifting body suffered a landing gear malfunction during an unmanned glide test and the crash landing caused serious damage. Sierra Nevada’s competitors, Boeing and SpaceX, are also running behind schedule on their programs, but observers say the frustratingly slow NASA bureaucracy gets some of the blame for that. This will probably be the year that NASA chooses from among the three programs, and a lot is on the line. It costs NASA $70 million per seat to send astronauts to the International Space Station hitching a ride with the Russians on a Soyuz spacecraft.
It seems trite to simply say that space exploration is a risky business, but what strikes me as unfair is the suggestion by some that these incidents may prove private enterprise can’t be counted on to safely carry out such a demanding activity as spaceflight. A ridiculous notion. Government organizations like NASA don’t build the components of their rockets and spacecraft—they contract them out to private aerospace manufacturers like Boeing, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin and dozens of others. Private space companies who carry the full responsibilities and risks themselves have the same level of expertise available to them, and as much or even more incentive to do things right. While many government contracts of all types go to the lowest bidder, space companies like SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp., and Virgin Galactic subsidiaries like Scaled Composites know that a couple of failures can mean the end of them. They don’t have the resources of governments to weather such huge losses.
The painfully slow progress of human space exploration over the past half-century shows that government bureaucracy is not the best way to take on the challenges of a risky but rewarding frontier. Although last week’s events were heartbreaking, it’s far too soon to write off the private entrepreneurs.
We need them.