Rockets Go Boom. Surprised?

There’s no risk-free way to launch 5,000 pounds of food, science experiments and equipment to the International Space Station. Some ways, it turns out, are far more dangerous than others.

Well, the engine was called “cantankerous.”

Photographer: Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images

There’s no risk-free way to launch 5,000 pounds of food, science experiments and equipment to the International Space Station. Some ways, it turns out, are far more dangerous than others. For example, before 2011, the space shuttle was the primary way the U.S. delivered such cargo, even though two of the 135 missions ended up in catastrophic failures -- a rate that far exceeds what’s acceptable for Earth-bound logistics businesses.

After the shuttle was retired, reliable Russian Progress modules carried such cargo. But even the Ford truck of the orbital set has its off days: In 2011, a Progress mission to the space station failed when the third stage of a rocket didn't ignite, stranding the cargo in low Earth orbit. Remarkably, it was the first failure of a Progress mission since its origins in 1978 -- but it was still a failure, and an expensive one at that.

Which brings us to last night’s spectacular failure of Orbital Science’s Antares rocket over Virginia. Orbital Science is not the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the Russian government. It is one of two private companies (the other being Elon Musk’s SpaceX) to have a contract with NASA to provide commercial cargo services to the International Space Station. NASA needed such alternatives to the retired shuttle and Russian launch services, and was keen to spur the development of a U.S. commercial space services sector. Thus NASA funded and supervised the launch providers' development, ensuring that technical and safety measures met the agency’s standards. Yet, in the interest of speeding up the process and saving money, NASA allowed the commercial providers to develop their programs without having to fulfill the extreme paperwork requirements that typically engulf NASA programs (but which, traditionalists argue, contribute to a culture of safety).

Will NASA’s commercial launch providers sacrifice profit for safety? Fireballs over Virginia suggest that they have. Yet, according to NASA’s internal history of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Program published in February, they never had the chance. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences had the right to ignore the NASA advisers on all matters “except those related to safety.” In those cases, they -- including the famously mercurial, independent-minded Musk -- had to take orders. That’s no guarantee that corners weren’t cut, but it does suggest that NASA’s culture of safety wasn’t completely absent during the Antares's development.

For now, speculation over the cause of yesterday's accident centers on Orbital Science’s use of decades-old Russian engines that -- with NASA supervision -- it bought and rescued from corrosion and neglect. Not everyone was impressed. In 2012, Musk referred to the Antares as the “punch line to a joke” and noted that these engines “were literally made in the '60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.” Even NASA, in its internal history of the program, referred to the engines as “cantankerous.” And in May, an engine -- slated for launch in 2015 -- was destroyed during a test in Colorado. But it’s also widely accepted that newer rockets fail more often than older, well-tested ones, especially if they’re involved in complex missions. Indeed, SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket experienced a catastrophic failure in a test in August.

Whatever the cause of the Antares failure, it’s clear that NASA and Orbital Services missed a flaw in the new rocket, despite decades of experience on both sides, and extensive, careful testing of the Russian engines. And that was to be expected. “NASA knows all too well there will be failures and setbacks ahead,” Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Program, explained in the NASA history. “But we also know that through the trusted partnerships we have forged with our industry colleagues, problems will be solved and a new era in commercial space will begin.”

Of course, that doesn’t make an expensive, catastrophic rocket failure OK. The cause of the Antares rocket explosion needs to be found, and a solution created so that it won’t happen again. If responsibility can be assigned, it should be. But at the same time, nobody should forget that space exploration entails risks that can never be entirely eliminated, and America’s future in space is largely dependent upon how willing it is to accept that difficult fact.

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