Space is Hard

“Space is hard” has been the refrain of the week after the tragic Virgin Galactic loss of crew and craft following the frustrating destruct-on-launch of the Antares rocket. Two commercial systems that have very different purposes and architectures but perhaps suffered mishaps due to the same profit-driven motives.

Orbital Sciences Antares is commercial in the sense that the design, engineering and integration of the rocket were entrusted to a for-profit business that received huge, upfront cash infusions from NASA — with NASA regulating key operating standards. Virgin Galactic is truly commercial. Other than subsidies from the State of New Mexico and California in the form of below-cost spaceports, this system is the product of unfettered capitalistic impulses. The only regulatory burden on Virgin Galactic was the need for a first-of-its-kind FAA certificate for a hybrid craft that takes off like a plane and is the launch platform for a mini-rocketplane that travels into suborbital space. The FAA, under pressure not to get in the way of commercial spaceflight, issued the certificate with very little scrutiny — certainly nothing like that afforded the development of conventional planes like the 787, 777, and A380.

Because the Virgin Galactic test-flight was operating under a FAA license when it failed and it was piloted, a first-of-its-kind investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board will be required. This is a very good thing because the NTSB findings will be public and few agencies are as competent and dispassionate in the analysis of accidents as the NTSB is.

Contrast this with the ill-fated Antares rocket which operates under a wholly different part of the Code of Federal Regulations. In theory and under law, the cause of the Antares accident could be withheld from the public. Such was the case when a quality assurance test of the Antares first-stage engine resulted in a catastrophic explosion back in May. To this day, the diagnosis behind that explosion has been kept private — information that belongs to and is controlled by Orbital Sciences. Of course, since the Antares rocket blew up while thousands watched live via Internet and on the ground, Orbital Sciences may have lost the ability to hide the failings of its rocket design from the public.

This leads me to two observations about commercial spaceflight: one my own (well, me and many others) and another belonging to James Oberg, former NASA manager and current space journalist. Oberg commented this week that commercial spaceflight — at this stage of the developmental curve — is riskier spaceflight than that directed and engineered by NASA. That is because of the profit motive which drives the search for cheaper ways to orbit and subsequently a willingness to push the risk envelope: fewer test flights and fewer static tests of components equals lower costs. Could Oberg be right? Orbital Sciences decision to buy at very low cost and rebuild 40+ year-old Soviet rocket engines was a cost-saving maneuver — or so it seemed. Certainly, buying spares was cheaper than designing new. We know that the Antares first-stage engine, the AJ26, failed repeatedly during dynamic tests in its original mission: lofting a huge Soviet rocket to the move. That rocket never made it to orbit because the large number of AJ26 engines it employed would shake apart due to destructive resonance.

Here’s my point. The corporate secrecy that has come with NASA’s commercial cargo and commercial crew business model is disappointing. (Leaving Virgin Galactic out of this since the NTSB will shine a very bright light on its circumstances). As noted earlier, Orbital Sciences has received a $1.6 billion commitment from NASA, meaning from all of us taxpayers. Why was Orbital allowed to keep secret the causes of the test-engine failure in May? What if that failure and last week’s failure are connected?

And what about Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft — the mini shuttle that, until recently, was in the running as an option for NASA’s commercial crew program. One year ago, in a flight test of its automated guidance and landing systems, the spaceplane was dropped from altitude with the goal of flying itself to a smooth landing on NASA’s runway at Edwards Air Force Base. The spaceplane flew brilliantly but crash-landed (on-target) when one of its landing gears failed. Sierra Nevada called its a success — key objectives accomplished! NASA conspicuously made no comment. When this reporter filed a FOIA request with NASA for all video and photographic images of the accident captured by NASA, the request was denied because the test article was privately owned and NASA was operating on behalf of Sierra Nevada when it recorded the incident. An appeal to NASA senior management noting that the test article was funded with hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars AND that the test article crashed on a government runway operated by NASA received a response noting that almost all photos and videos had been handed over to Sierra Nevada and the case was closed. As for the remainder not handed over, I was out of luck. (Ultimately, many months later, one photo was leaked to the web showing the extent of the damage).

The point? We can’t forget that secrecy and the profit-motive are linked in the development of commercial spaceflight, no less so than when government bureaucracies rely on secrecy to achieve certain aims

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