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.

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