Commercial Space Industry Regroups After Accidents

Two accidents in the commercial space industry this year — an unmanned rocket that exploded shortly after launch in the fall and an experimental suborbital craft that broke apart during flight shortly after — are almost sure to come up the next time a congressional committee discusses the private spacecraft market. But, experts say the incidents won’t have much of an effect on the sector’s increasing expansion.

“I think it’s going to cause some delays,” said Kerri Cahoy, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But I don’t think it’ll do much damage to the industry as a whole.”

The private sector spaceflight issues started with what NASA is calling a “mishap” in October, when an unmanned Antares rocket operated by Orbital Sciences Corp. under a contract to bring supplies to the International Space Station blew up shortly after takeoff from NASA’s Wallops Island launch facility in Virginia.

Later the same week, a test flight of Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo resulted in the death of co-pilot Michael Alsbury when the spacecraft detached from its carrier aircraft in mid-air. Both incidents are still under investigation.

Thus far, members of Congress, who have largely cheered the development of the commercial space business, haven’t jumped on the incidents as a reason to clamp down on the industry. After the Orbital Sciences explosion, Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said, “space flight is inherently risky,” but commercial space ventures “will ultimately be successful.” He expressed similar thoughts on the Virgin Galactic accident.

“I’m deeply saddened by the loss of one of the pilots,” Nelson said. “This has been a tragic week for our commercial space sector. But I’m confident that we will learn from the investigations of these two accidents and take steps to prevent them from happening again.”

Implications for Industry

Experts are hoping other lawmakers take similarly deliberative approaches; some have expressed frustration about the way the recent accidents have been reported.

“I find a lot of the discussion about the implications for commercial space flight miss the mark,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University.

Pace and some others who study space travel say though the timing was unfortunate, comparing the two accidents is unfair and possibly misleading. The Orbital Sciences accident involved an Antares rocket using two decades-old, Russian-built refurbished engines, with the intent of bringing cargo to an orbiting station — a relatively routine mission with routine technology. But an accident involving such a mission isn’t unheard of, whether it’s a government launch or a commercial one, experts say.

“We obviously have seen launch vehicle accidents from every program implemented by the U.S., the Soviet Union, the Russians and the European Space Agency,” said Jonathan Lunine, a space research professor at Cornell University.

Cahoy said the Antares explosion may also have received extra attention because it occurred at night, producing some spectacular video.

The Virgin Galactic accident, on the other hand, involved an experimental vehicle intended for sub-orbital flight, intended to be used for space tourists willing to pay for six-figure tickets. Such experiments are conducted to collect data, and sometimes that happens in tragic circumstances, Cahoy said. There was a time when the country was accustomed to such risks — in decades past, when NASA was working with early manned spacecraft. But now, when the private sector is doing that experimental work, such accidents can seem more surprising.

“It you’re doing something new, you’re taking a gamble,” she said. “It’s been some time since we’ve seen that risk played out.”

Perhaps such risks shouldn’t come as a shock, though, Pace said. “It’s a very dangerous business, and the engineering and the physics are the same whether you’re in private practice or with the government.”

Virgin Galactic’s work using sub-orbital vehicles launched from reusable aircraft comes under the regulation of the Federal Aviation Administration, and the company’s challenge moving forward will be finding an acceptable level of risk, both for the regulator and for its potential clients.

“One can draw the line of what is acceptable risk at different levels,” Pace said.

Lunine serves as co-chairman of the National Academies’ Commission on Human Spaceflight, which this year released a report on the future of manned space exploration. At one point, the report notes that sustained human space development beyond low-Earth orbit “will almost inevitably lead to multiple losses of vehicles and crews over the long term.”

New Rockets

The Orbital Sciences accident has also fuelled speculation that it could spur congressional appropriators and federal agencies to invest in replacing the Russian-designed rockets on which U.S. missions often rely.

The launch used a pair of AJ-26 rocket engines, which were originally Soviet-era equipment that Aerojet Rocketdyne purchased, refurbished and modified. Congressional overseers and advocates for the U.S. space program have called for companies and agencies to replace the AJ-26, and the newer Russian RD-180, with next-generation American engines.

Users of the AJ-26 are working off a dwindling stockpile, and another recent explosion, involving a May test rocket flight in Mississippi, have called the engine’s reliability into question. The RD-180 is still in production, but poor U.S.-Russia relations over Ukraine have caused lawmakers to question the continued availability of the engine.

When U.S. programs began using Russian engines, Pace said, the plan was to have them serve as a stopgap while the American space program came up with replacements. Those replacement initiatives did not receive sufficient funding, however, and fell into years’ worth of delays. Pace said he hopes the Antares explosion will be a new incentive for development of the U.S. replacements.

“Everybody benefits from a stronger U.S. rocket supply,” he said.

Cahoy said momentum has been building for rocket development, and the recent explosion will probably contribute to that. But the continued availability of the RD-180 could make the investment hard to justify for lawmakers and agencies.

“One thing that’s hard in the free market is that you’ve got these old Russian rockets piled up that don’t require much testing,” she said. “It’s hard to motivate yourself to spend on R&D to build your own shiny new ones.”