A Failure to Launch Gives NASA Spotty Access to the Space Station

Fresh fruit could be the least of the hassles for the ISS crew, given launch troubles at NASA's two space station cargo suppliers

People who came to watch the launch walk away after an unmanned rocket owned by Orbital Sciences Corporation exploded on Oct. 28, 2014, just seconds after liftoff from Wallops Island, Va., on what was to be a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

Photographer: Steve Alexander/AFP/Getty Images

The destruction of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket over Florida this summer showed the vulnerability of resupply links to the International Space Station that have left NASA dependent on Russian craft. A pending round of contracts covering ISS cargo missions through 2024 might be an avenue by which NASA can expand its supplier roster beyond SpaceX and Orbital ATK, the commercial ventures that have hauled food, water, and science equipment to the orbiting lab since the shuttle program ended.

A report released Thursday, Sept. 17, by NASA’s inspector general reviewed the agency’s response to the October 2014 explosion of an Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket and its impacts on the agency’s resupply program for the space station. The report (pdf) lays out some of the problems with having two "redundant" ISS cargo suppliers in the $3.5 billion commercial resupply contracts. One of the biggest? When both companies experience failures, that redundancy isn't exactly adequate and leaves NASA short of access to the space station. The report also criticized NASA for “missed opportunities to seek lower prices from Orbital both before and after the [October] failure.” The inspector said NASA could have gotten more in concessions from Orbital when it agreed to accept four additional cargo flights instead of the original five and found problems with how the commercial launches are insured.

Last month, NASA sent water-purification and other equipment to the ISS aboard a Japanese vessel, although Russia is its main option for transporting food, water, and science equipment to the station for now. But over the past six Russian flights, the U.S. cargo allotment on each has averaged only 59 kilograms (130 pounds), the IG report said. That compares with the 2,293 kilograms (5,055 pounds) of cargo destroyed in the Orbital mishap. 

NASA signed a $1.9 billion contract with Orbital for eight flights to the ISS through the end of 2016. The company now plans to meet its obligation with four flights in that period, with half of those using an updated—and untested—model of the Russian-designed Antares rocket. Orbital—which in February merged with Alliant Techsystems’ aerospace and defense units, ATK, to form Orbital ATK—has set the first flight on that rocket for March 2016. NASA said it considers a June launch more likely.

Orbital’s next commercial launch is scheduled for December, hitching a ride on an Atlas V rocket from a rival: United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture. The second will be in early 2016, also aboard an Atlas V. It is unclear when SpaceX will resume its Falcon 9 flights to the ISS. “We are on schedule,” Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said Thursday, declining to discuss specific aspects of the report because it is about NASA and not the company. “We’re excited to be getting back to [resupply] launches later this year.”

NASA is expected to announce its next ISS cargo contract in November. Beyond the two incumbents, at least three other companies—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada—are competing for that work.

The IG report also criticizes the lack of independence in the accident investigation, given that Orbital was in charge of determining what caused the failures. The same process is playing out in the SpaceX mishap, in which the company is the lead investigator. At a July 20 news conference, Musk blamed the failure of a strut used on the Falcon 9 rocket, manufactured by a SpaceX supplier, for causing the problem. Four of the seven people on the Orbital accident investigation board are employees of the company, including the chairman, the inspector general noted.

The report also found that Virginia’s congressional delegation got $20 million in NASA funding designated for repairs at the Wallops launch site, even though NASA was not responsible for damage to the property. Ultimately, NASA spent $5 million to avoid delays in the reconstruction, which is expected to be finished this month. “As NASA continues to rely on commercial companies to provide cargo, and soon crew, transportation services to the ISS, it is important to ensure all parties comply with procedures regarding obtaining (or waiving) insurance and clarifying who pays for what in the event of a mishap,” the report said. NASA disagreed with the IG recommendation on adequate insurance coverage for liability and damage. The agency said that it was not required to help pay for any of the damage in Virginia but had “made an appropriate programmatic and policy-based decision to do so.”

The Inspector General has also begun a similar inquiry into consequences of the SpaceX failure less than three minutes into its launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

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