Spaceflight's no good, very bad week

After two serious accidents, what's next?


Last Tuesday, Orbital Science’s unmanned Antares rocket delivering supplies to the International Space Station exploded about 15 seconds into launch. Orbital says its engineers intentionally destroyed the rocket after detecting an unspecified failure. No one was injured. The failed launch would have been Orbital’s third of eight delivery missions to the ISS, part of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA signed in 2008.

Three days later, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo disintegrated mid-flight, killing one test pilot and injuring another. Before the failed test, Richard Branson had said he hoped the rocket plane, built by Scaled Composites, would be ferrying tourists to the edge of space sometime next year. That will no longer happen, and the accident, coming so soon after Orbital’s explosion, invites questions about the future of the private space industry. Experts and analysts are careful to distinguish between the two accidents. They occurred with very different types of vehicles, operated by very different companies, and their effect on the industry will likely be very different as well.

In the Orbital incident, the investigation into the accident is ongoing, but speculation has focused on the rocket’s first stage — a kerosene and liquid-oxygen engine built in the 1960s and ’70s for the Soviet moon program, then bought and refurbished by an American rocket manufacturer. Antares has had problems with the engines before, including a failed test this spring, and the company says it has been investigating a replacement. Orbital’s stock dropped 15 percent after the accident, and the company will likely have to postpone its resupply launches while it figures out what went wrong. If the problem can’t be quickly fixed, according to Marco Caceres, director of space studies at the defense consultancy the Teal Group, Orbital may have to delay for several years while it works on a replacement, at which point it would risk losing its NASA contract.

But while the accident is certainly a setback for Orbital, analysts say it likely won’t deal a major blow to commercial spaceflight generally. The ISS still needs to be resupplied, and the Antares accident won’t deter NASA from seeking private contractors to do so. Carissa Christensen of the aerospace consultancy the Tauri Group points out that NASA has always relied on commercial companies to help execute its missions to varying degrees, and she believes it will continue with its current, more hands-off contracting approach. If Orbital can’t find and fix its problem, the job will fall to another company. Caceres says the accident could end up benefitting SpaceX, which holds a separate $1.6 billion resupply contract with NASA, provided it can handle the extra demand.

Law enforcement officers examine the wreckage of SpaceShipTwo (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Things look different for Virgin Galactic, however, partly because Virgin is in the fundamentally different business of tourism. Virgin has been working toward making space tourism a reality for almost a decade now, ever since it partnered with Scaled Composites, the maker of the rocket plane that won the X-Prize in 2004. Branson has been claiming that tourist flights are just around the corner for almost as long, but last week’s crash is a reminder of just how ambitious that idea is.

For space tourism to work, it’s not enough to be safe according to the standards of today’s space industry — to function as a business it has to be almost airline-level safe, and rockets are a long way from that. Orbital’s CEO said that out of 284 launches in more than 30 years, 95 percent have been successful. US airlines on the other hand have had one fatal crash in the last five years, a success rate of 99.999998 percent. Bloomberg compared the safety record of the retired shuttle to the frequency of modern air travel, and found that if planes crashed as often as the shuttle did, there would be 272 crashes a day in the United States.

"It’s like flying with a bomb"

"If there’s a common lesson here it’s that space launch is not a trivial venture," says Ann Karagozian, a professor of aeronautical engineering at UCLA. "I don’t think anyone in the business thinks that, but the general public should realize that this is not as routine an activity as aircraft flight. There will be failures." Rockets are inherently dangerous, she says. "The way launch systems typically work is such that you need a very high pressure, high temperature chamber that exhausts burning gasses from a nozzle. It’s like flying with a bomb." Add to that incredibly high speeds; the requirement that the rocket burn through and jettison its stages extremely precisely; the jarring vibrations of the launch; and the fact that the rocket’s single engine has no redundancy — and you have a system where minor problems can turn into catastrophic failures.

Orbital can stay in business with a 95 percent success rate because it’s launching cargo, not people, and because its business is built around the relatively steady income stream of government contracts. As long as they’re relatively competent and competitive, companies like Orbital, Boeing, and SpaceX have guaranteed demand in the form of resupply missions and satellite launches, lower-stakes endeavors that will allow them to test their technology to the point that, in Boeing and SpaceX’s case, it can eventually carry astronauts.

spaceshiptwo feathering

Virgin, on the other hand, is staking its entire business on demand that will evaporate quickly if there’s a perception that its flights are unsafe, and it’s doing it with technology that is comparatively experimental. SpaceShipOne, for instance, was powered by a novel engine that used nitrous oxide to burn a chunk of rubber; it worked during SpaceShipOne’s test flights and the X Prize competition, but caused problems when scaled up for SpaceShipTwo. In 2007 a nitrous tank exploded during ground testing, killing three engineers and injuring three others. Two years later when tests resumed, engineers discovered that the engine vibrated so violently that it could only be fired for 20 seconds at a time, not nearly long enough to get to space. That led to the design of a new fuel combination, one that used nitrous oxide to burn plastic. It was the first test flight with that fuel which disintegrated Friday.

"Space tourism is fundamentally like adventure tourism"

We still don’t what caused the Virgin crash. Cockpit video shows one of the test pilots unlocking the plane’s reentry system, a twin tail that rotates upward to reduce drag, earlier than normal. Neither pilot took the additional step of deploying it, but the tail pivoted upward anyway shortly before the craft disintegrated. Why the tail deployed will take time to figure out, and the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident. Whatever the problem turns out to be, the investigatory process, subsequent redesign, and thorough testing will likely set Virgin back several years, analysts say, possibly far longer.

"I can say for sure it won’t happen next year," says Caceres. "Probably not 2016, probably not the following year either — whether before the end of the decade, you can only speculate."

So far Branson has reaffirmed his intention to push forward with the space tourism program, while acknowledging that the crash is a major setback. "We are determined to honor the bravery of the pilots and the teams here by learning from this tragedy," he said at a press conference this weekend. "We do understand the risks involved, and we’re not going to push on blindly."

If space tourism does become a reality, Roger Launius, associate director at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, imagines it will be regarded like early mountain climbing. "Space tourism is fundamentally like adventure tourism," he says. "It attracts the same sort of people willing to climb Everest, and people die every year doing that."