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Why SpaceX's flubbed launch hurts the US's future in space

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America doesn't have a lot of options

SpaceX

It was all going according to plan. At 10:21AM ET Sunday, SpaceX’s uncrewed Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, en route to the International Space Station. Perched atop the rocket was the company’s Dragon cargo capsule, packed full of food, science experiments, and other supplies for the ISS’ crew. For over two glorious minutes, the vehicle looked magnificent as it ascended toward the heavens. And then it exploded.

The failure sent shockwaves throughout the spaceflight community — SpaceX, until now, had a reputation for reliability. This was the company’s seventh commercial resupply mission for NASA; the launch was otherwise routine. Out of 19 total Falcon launches, this is the first one to end in complete failure.

As a nation, we are limited when it comes to getting cargo to the ISS

Fortunately, the astronauts aboard the ISS are in no immediate danger of going hungry. The station is well-stocked until late October. A Russian Progress cargo craft is slated for launch on July 3rd, and the Japan-made HTV cargo craft is supposed to launch sometime in August.

Yet the explosion highlights just how limited our options are for getting cargo to the ISS. Since the retirement of the shuttle program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on Russian technology to get supplies and astronauts to the ISS. The existence of SpaceX, which can restock the station using American-made vehicles, has lessened that reliance. That’s important, since relations between Russia and the United States have been tense since the Ukraine crisis. Last year, NASA announced they would accept American companies’ bids to send astronauts to the ISS for the first time since 2011. SpaceX and Boeing secured spots to launch people from US soil in 2017. But it’s possible that yesterday’s failure could spell problems for SpaceX’s relationship with NASA. And that may mean the US remains reliant on Russian rocket engines.

Russia's Space Grip

Russia dominates the spaceflight industry; it’s the only country currently capable of launching people to the ISS. The Russian space agency’s Soyuz rocket is the sole ride to space for NASA astronauts, and it also sends the Progress resupply ship into orbit. These trips on the Soyuz don’t come cheap — NASA pays $70 million to send a single astronaut to the ISS. Without other options, though, NASA has to pay or its people don’t fly.

It’s not just the Soyuz. The Russian space industry consists of more than 100 different contractors and developers. Many major players in the American private spaceflight sector rely on Russian technology in some form, usually in their rocket engines. Orbital Sciences plans to use RD-181 engines in its latest version of the Antares, which are produced by Moscow-based company NPO Energomash. RD-180 engines, also produced by Energomash, are used in the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V.

"We’re too reliant on Russia, and I think NASA regrets that and Congress regrets that; we’re funding an unfavorable government," Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, tells The Verge. "...We’re a great space nation, and we should have a capable human spaceflight program."

"We’re funding an unfavorable government."

That’s why SpaceX is so attractive to NASA: It promises rides to space with all U.S. hardware. The Falcon 9 is made in America by American engineers with American engines, avionics, and ground controls.

But if SpaceX halts its launches while it investigates this failure, there aren’t many other options for sending cargo into space on American-built rockets. (The company has already postponed its next scheduled launch.) NASA could turn to ULA, a joint venture between American companies Lockheed Martin and Boeing. And there’s still Orbital Sciences, the other winner of the commercial resupply contract, though the company can’t launch cargo just yet; after experiencing an explosion on the launch pad last year, Orbital has been sidelined as it works to replace its rocket engines. That’s all of the American options, though NASA could still turn to Russia or Japan to send up cargo.

SpaceX is also one of the cheapest options too. NASA paid SpaceX around $1.6 billion for 12 cargo flights. That’s about $133 million per launch, compared to an average launch cost of $225 million from ULA. SpaceX claims it will be able to launch humans for about $58 million per ride, beating Russia’s price by more than $10 million.

"It’s not a good thing for our country that we have really one low-cost launch provider," James Muncy, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, tells The Verge. "But before SpaceX, we had zero. So it’s really important that SpaceX succeeds, and we have other private organizations enter the competition. We’re not going to have the revolution in space we want to have unless we have more cheap access to space."

The Future Of Commercial Crew

Sunday’s crash also has implications for the future of SpaceX within NASA’s Commercial Crew Program — the bid SpaceX won in 2014 to send people to the ISS. The lost Falcon was bringing up a new docking adaptor, one that would allow SpaceX’s Dragon crew capsule to attach to the station.

"I don’t think there’s any reason to believe they won’t move forward."

Sunday’s explosion may prove worrisome, though, since an updated Falcon 9 is meant to carry the SpaceX crew capsule — with crew — to space. However, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden says NASA will stand by the company, and Muncy agrees the space agency won’t waiver in its commitments.

"I don’t think there’s any reason to believe they won’t move forward. NASA and SpaceX have developed a really good relationship," says Muncy. "They have made mistakes in the past, they’ve learned from them, exchanged ideas... NASA is going to have an eye over SpaceX’s shoulder as they conduct their review."

However, regulators might not be so confident with the company, and politicians may see these recent failures as a reason to cut off funding or restructure the commercial incentive programs. Such political fallout has been seen before in the spaceflight world. In the wake of NASA’s Columbia disaster, an investigation board was formed to determine the cause of the accident and issue recommendations for moving forward. In a 2003 report, that board ultimately recommended to "recertify," or update, the Space Shuttle in 2010. The following year in 2004, the Bush Administration modified that advice, calling for the cancellation of the Shuttle program instead.

Yet both Muncy and Stallmer agree that the main takeaway from such incidents shouldn’t be skepticism towards spaceflight. Instead, these issues should embolden our resolve and show us how we have been falling behind in the private sector.

"Congress needs to increase the funding and not have this budget uncertainty hanging over the contractors’ heads," says Stallmer. "Cutting the Commercial Crew budget — that’s no way to go about conducting a successful launch program. There will be skeptics, but you have to ask the simple question: What other alternatives are out there?"

Correction: Orbital Sciences will use RD-181 engines in its updated Antares rocket; ULA’s Altas V uses RD-180 engines. A previous version of this story suggested they used the same engine.