Friday, October 31, 2014

Nanoracks Moving Customers to SpaceX

Nanoracks CubeSats deploy February 11, 2014 from the International Space Station. Image source: NASA.

Nanoracks issued a press release yesterday about the loss of their customers' payloads on the Orbital Sciences Orb-3 mission.

We have been in touch with all customers on the Orb-3 Mission and plan to be in touch with all our current and future customers on flight opportunities. Our focus today is on re-booking current customers who are manifested on Orb-4 and Orb-5, onto SpaceX or other cargo vehicles ...

We of course expect that Orbital will identify the root cause and be flying again. But we hope that from this setback we all can see the robustness of the space station program. No longer does the failure of one vehicle terminate a space station program.

The advantages of competition are proven again. Orbital dropped the ball, so Nanoracks is taking their customers elsewhere.

NASA was grounded 975 days after the loss of Challenger in January 1986, and 922 days after the loss of Columbia in February 2003. Now that NASA has choice, the ISS remains well-supplied.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Orbital Antares Update

Orbital Sciences posted this update today:

Update – October 30, 2014

Launch Site Status:

Based on initial sweeps conducted by an Orbital safety team, it appears a significant amount of debris remains on the site and it is likely substantial hardware evidence will be available to aid in determining root cause of the Antares launch failure. Some of the Cygnus cargo has also been found and will be retrieved as soon as we have clearance to do so to see if any survived intact. After up close visual inspections by the safety team, it still appears the launch site itself avoided major damage. There is some evidence of damage to piping that runs between the fuel and commodity storage vessels and the launch mount, but no evidence of significant damage to either the storage vessels or launch mount. Detailed evaluations by MARS and their engineering team will occur in the next couple of days. An Orbital-led team has begun cataloging and documenting the location of all pieces of debris over the next several days after which the debris will be relocated to storage bays on the island for further evaluation.

Antares Data Review:

Telemetry data has been released to Orbital and our engineers presented a very quick look assessment to the Accident Investigation Board at the end of the day. It appears the Antares vehicle had a nominal pre-launch and launch sequence with no issues noted. All systems appeared to be performing nominally until approximately T+15 seconds at which point the failure occurred. Evidence suggests the failure initiated in the first stage after which the vehicle lost its propulsive capability and fell back to the ground impacting near, but not on, the launch pad. Prior to impacting the ground, the rocket’s Flight Termination System was engaged by the designated official in the Wallops Range Control Center.

Antares Voices

As we await an official diagnosis for the loss Tuesday of the Orbital Sciences Antares, this post offers videos of notables discussing the event.

October 29, 2014 ... Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver on Bloomberg TV.

October 29, 2014 ... Science Correspondent Miles O'Brien on PBS NewsHour.

October 29, 2014 ... Miles O'Brien and former Shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly on CNN.

The Engines That Came In from the Cold

Click the arrow to watch the documentary. Video source: Matthew Travis YouTube channel.

The Orbital Sciences Antares rocket that exploded Tuesday uses engines originally built in the 1970s by the Soviet Union's Kuznetsov Design Bureau. Originally intended for the N-1 moon rocket, the NK-33 engines were stored in a warehouse after the program was cancelled.

In the mid-1990s, thirty-six of the engines were sold to Aerojet General. Aerojet refurbished the engines, renamed them AJ26-62, and sold them to Orbital for the Antares.

In 2001, U.K. TV Channel 4 produced a documentary titled The Engines That Came In from the Cold about how the Soviet engines came to be in American hands. This is six years before Orbital won a NASA commercial cargo contract.

Pundits are blaming the refurbished NK-33s for Tuesday's explosion, but so far no public evidence has been released to support that conclusion. An AJ-26 failed May 22 on a NASA Stennis test stand. All the engines are test-fired at Stennis before installation on the Antares. If the AJ-26 is responsible for Tuesday's failure, it already had been test-fired at Stennis.

Click the arrow to watch a March 29, 2014 AJ-26 test. Video source: NASA Stennis YouTube channel.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Deorbit Burn

Click the arrow to watch the explosion. Video source: NASA.

Icarus, in Greek mythology, was the son of Daedalus who dared fly too close to the sun on wings of feather and wax.

The feathers came loose, and Icarus plunged to his death in the sea.

As it plunged to its own fiery death on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket consumed in its flames the Cygnus module intended to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.

In the subsequent media event, NASA officials stressed that the ISS typically has a six-month supply of consumables. The Russian Progress launched a few hours later and has already docked at the station. SpaceX is scheduled to launch Dragon CRS-5 on the Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral in December.

Click the arrow to watch the post-launch media event. Video source: NASA.

While competitors, customers and compatriots all expressed their sympathy and support, it's almost certain we'll see a Congressional hearing in upcoming months by members who've long had their knives sharpened for the commercial space program.

Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steven Palazzo (R-MS), who respectively chair the House Science Committee and its space subcommittee, issued a press release within hours that included this brief statement:

“We add our disappointment to the thousands in the space community who worked tirelessly in support of Tuesday evening's launch attempt at Wallops Island. We are relieved to hear there are no reported fatalities, and we anticipate learning more about the circumstances surrounding the launch failure in the near future.”

Other critics, such as Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), have yet to issue a statement.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, issued this release:

We should allow Orbital, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Space Authority, and NASA to do their job in investigating the extent of damage to property and assessing the cause of this unfortunate accident and possible impacts to the ISS program. Mishaps such as occurred yesterday are part of venturing into space and do nothing to diminish my strong support for NASA and our nation's space program.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) issued this statement:

Last night’s failed launch is the latest reminder that, despite our many successes in space, getting there is anything but routine. I was sorry to hear about the experimental data, equipment, and supplies that were lost in the explosion. Thankfully, no one was injured and I know that the accident investigation team is already hard at work examining the launch data and the site itself. They will work with the appropriate federal agencies to find the underlying cause of the failure and use that knowledge to ensure successful future launches.

Many members of the House and Senate space subcommittees have pressured NASA to “pick one and move on” in the commercial crew program, despite NASA's warnings that eliminating multiple options would result in the same long-term shutdowns the agency suffered after the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Competition also assures innovation and choice, as well as lower cost.

I suspect that eventually we'll hear the usual voices claiming this is proof that the private sector can't be trusted, while overlooking the fourteen lives NASA lost during the Space Shuttle program. NASA lost Challenger because managers insisted on launching despite warnings it was too cold, and managers for years turned a blind eye to the falling foam problem that led to the loss of Columbia.

If NASA had chosen Orbital as its only cargo delivery vendor, most likely we wouldn't see another flight for the foreseeable future. The agency would have to rely on the Russian Progress cargo ship, because its European and Japanese partners are ending their autonomous cargo programs.

But thanks to multiple vendors ... SpaceX can save the day.

SpaceX also assumes the heavy burden of being the sole vendor now, which means any accident could mean the demise by Congress of not only commercial cargo but also commercial crew.

I fully expect we'll hear the elected representatives of certain NASA centers start demanding that the Space Launch System be used to deliver cargo, even though it won't fly until late 2018 at the earliest.

NASA issued a press release this evening with an initial assessment of damage to the Wallops facility.

The initial assessment is a cursory look; it will take many more weeks to further understand and analyze the full extent of the effects of the event. A number of support buildings in the immediate area have broken windows and imploded doors. A sounding rocket launcher adjacent to the pad, and buildings nearest the pad, suffered the most severe damage.

At Pad 0A the initial assessment showed damage to the transporter erector launcher and lightning suppression rods, as well as debris around the pad.

Damage to Wallops Pad 0A this morning. Click here to see at a higher resolution. Image source: NASA.

If the Republicans take control of the Senate in next week's elections, the future of the commercial space program could be even murkier. Senator Shelby, infamous for directing pork to Alabama, has long opposed the commercial program because he sees it as a threat to Space Launch System jobs in his state. Shelby could be in line to chair the Senate's appropriations committee that funds NASA.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), despite his Tea Party roots, generally has been a sober and deferential companion to Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) on the Senate space subcommittee. Texas may have Johnson Space Center, but now it also has the new SpaceX commercial spaceport at Boca Chica.

Hopefully SpaceX can pick up the slack and prove that commercial space is the future, not pork politics. We might otherwise see NewSpace plunge into the sea, along with Icarus and Antares.

Click the arrow to listen to the Orbital Sciences teleconference late today.