Commentary by Michael Mackowski
Last week we saw two serious set-backs for the commercial space industry. The Antares failure underscores the need for modern, domestic liquid fueled rocket engines, while Virgin Galactic’s tragic loss of SpaceShip2 and its co-pilot reminds us of the inherent risks of rocket-powered flight.
The Antares failure appears to be related to the use of old Russian NK-33 engines modified to the AJ-26 configuration. This could put more pressure on Congress to fund development of domestic liquid fueled engines. But Orbital Sciences has just announced that they will discontinue use of these engines and advance their plans to use a different engine (rumored to be the newer Russian RD-193). They had previously announced plans for this upgrade, and the accident will speed up this process to the extent possible. Still, implementing this upgrade will take time, and apparently the new Antares version won’t fly until 2016. The next Antares flight was originally scheduled for April of 2015. Meanwhile, the November 5 press release notes that to maintain performance on the Commercial Resupply Services contract, Orbital will fly one or two Cygnus missions using a completely different booster. This is a clever approach. Instead of spending money on building another Antares, they will buy a different launch vehicle (my guess is a Delta II), thus minimizing the financial hit to the CRS program.
The accident could have been worse. Despite the spectacular explosion, initial reports suggest the Wallops launch pad sustained only minor damage. If there is any other positive to come from this failure, it is that it underscores the need for redundant access to orbit. Having both SpaceX and Orbital under contract for resupply services provides independent capabilities so that a problem in one system does not shut down the resupply program completely. This is why it will be wise to implement the Commercial Crew program with two contractors using completely different hardware designs (including boosters).
The Virgin Galactic accident is a somewhat different animal. You have a tragic loss of life, but the program was a non-governmental purely commercial tourist industry initiative. This set-back has no impact on the viability of any government space program other than to sour the overall mood for commercial efforts. I believe Richard Branson and Virgin will not give up because of this accident. On the other hand, it will add delay and concern to an effort that was already many years behind schedule. I think the biggest threat will be Branson’s ability to continue to get investors to support this program. This accident killed the co-pilot, lost an expensive flight vehicle, and will involve a lengthy investigation. This will all add another year or more until the time when the program can begin to generate revenue.
Space advocates need to remember that Virgin Galactic is a business. In spite of the rhetoric from Branson and the folks at Virgin Galactic about making space accessible to the masses, they still need to make money. At some point, their investors may realize that this endeavor is not going to be profitable for a long, long time. It will be interesting to see if funding becomes a problem for this program.
Meanwhile there is some good news on the space front, as there are some exciting days coming in the near term. The Rosetta comet mission plans to drop the Philae lander on comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Nov. 12, and the first Orion capsule launch is set for December 4 on an Atlas vehicle. Let’s hope these ambitious efforts are successful and we can share some excitement about what is possible in the never-dull world of space exploration and development.