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The dramatic explosions last week of a piloted Virgin Galactic spaceship and an unmanned commercial rocket off Virginia’s Eastern Shore have shone a spotlight on the risks of commercial space flight. Though investigations are ongoing in both incidents, the accidents are a blow to both the private launch industry — which helps resupply International Space Station astronauts, among other tasks — and the future of space tourism. We get the latest on the accidents in the Mojave Desert and in Virginia, and learn about the risks and rewards NASA is weighing as private companies increasingly take over vital functions in space travel.
- Jeff Foust Senior Staff Writer, Space News; Editor, The Space Review
- Howard McCurdy Professor of Public Affairs, American University; Co-author of "Robots In Space: Technology, Evolution and Interplanetary Travel" (Johns Hopkins University Press)
Video Of Antares Rocket Explosion
A unmanned rocket carrying 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments to the International Space Station exploded shortly after blastoff at NASA’s facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.
MS. JEN GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo.
MS. JEN GOLBECKLater this hour, the future of mobile payments, but first, rockets are tricky. That tweet, from the founder of the private space travel firm, Space X, came in August. But it summarizes what's amounted to a terrible few days for the space industry.
MS. JEN GOLBECKA week ago today, an unmanned commercial rocket carrying 5,000 pounds of cargo exploded off Virginia's eastern shore. And three days later, a test run of Virgin Galactic sub-orbital spaceship exploded, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another. Three years after NASA ended its shuttle program, both accidents are grave reminders of the risks and potential rewards that come with commercial space flight. But are these merely setbacks for space travel and exploration, or indicators of more serious flaws in a young industry that's racing to get astronauts to Mars in less than two decades.
MS. JEN GOLBECKHere to give us the latest on these mishaps and to examine what's next in the commercial space business are Jeff Foust, Senior Staff Writer for Space News. And he's also the editor of the Space Review. It's good to have you here.
MR. JEFF FOUSTGood afternoon.
GOLBECKAnd Howard McCurdy, Professor of Public Affairs at American University. And he's co-author of "Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution and Interplanetary Travel." It's good to have you.
MR. HOWARD MCCURDYThank you.
GOLBECKYou can also join the conversation. Do you think the Virgin Galactic crash and the rocket explosion last week are a blow for the future of space travel? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeff, last week was a rough one for the commercial space industry with the loss of the Antares rocket off the eastern shore and Virgin Galactic spaceship in the Mojave Desert on Friday. Investigations of both these accidents could take months, but what's the focus now, starting with the Virgin Galactic ship?
FOUSTYeah, as some listeners may know, on Friday, Virgin Galactic was doing a test flight of a vehicle called Spaceship II. Ultimately, that's designed to carry people on sub-orbital space flights up to about 60 miles altitude, giving them a taste of space flight, but not going all the way into orbit. During the test flight, something went wrong about 10 seconds after they ignited the rocket motor. And the vehicle broke apart. One of the pilots was injured, another was killed.
FOUSTThe investigation is still in the early phases. The National Transportation Safety Board, NTSB, the same organization that investigates airliner accidents and other accidents involving different modes of transportation is starting its investigation and sifting through the various data available. It's going to take up to a year for them to come to a conclusion, so it's going to be some time before we really know what happened on Friday afternoon.
GOLBECKVirgin Galactic announced earlier this year that it was switching the ship's fuel from one made with a rubber component to a plastic component. That fuel's been tested on the ground, but not in the air. How's the fuel weighing in to the investigation?
FOUSTWell, initially, a lot of the speculation about the accident focused on the engine. Virgin Galactic had experienced many delays in the development of that particular rocket motor, including the switch of the fuel that you mentioned. So understandably, there was a lot of speculation that the engine figured in to the accident somehow. But on Sunday, the NTSB investigator said that the engine was performing normally, up to the point where the vehicle broke apart.
FOUSTSo the engine does not appear, right now at least, to be the root cause of the accident. Instead, a portion of the vehicle called, what's called a feathering mechanism, it allows the tail to rise up during re-entry. To help slow the vehicle down, but it's not intended to deploy during the power portion of flight. That appeared to unlock for some reason. It appears that a pilot may have actually unlocked that mechanism earlier than planned. Why is not clear at this point. But that may have caused the accident, and not the engine. So it may be the engine is exonerated, at least for the time being.
GOLBECKSo Jeff, going to the other accident that we had last week, there was an initial focus on a Soviet era engine that powered the Antares rocket that exploded last week in Virginia. Where are we in that investigation?
FOUSTOrbital Scientist Corporation, which is the company that built the Antares rocket that launched from Wallops Island, has an Accident Investigation Board that is sifting through the data as we speak about the accident. From the video of the accident, it appears that there was some sort of explosion at the base of the rocket where the main engines are. The engine lost power and the vehicle fell back to earth. And there was a larger explosion at that point, understandably.
FOUSTThe engines that they use are what are called the AJ 26, from a company called Aerojet Rocketdyne. But Aerojet actually purchased those engines from a Russian company. These engines were originally called the NK33. They were built more than 40 years ago for the former Soviet Union's space program. In fact, for their rocket that was intended to be their answer to our Saturn 5 moon rocket. Those engines were put in storage for a number of years, Aerojet acquired them after the fall of the Soviet Union, refurbished them, and Orbital has been using them successfully on several launches until the accident last week.
GOLBECKWe'd like to hear from you too. Should NASA rely on private industry to shuttle supplies, but not people, into space? And would you take a trip on a ship made by Space X or Virgin Galactic? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Howard, accidents like these naturally produce questions about the future of space flight led by private companies. Is it premature to lump these incidents together into one big headline questioning the future of this relatively new industry?
MCCURDYThere are at least three different approaches that are underway right now. Virgin Galactic represents one. That's space tourism. We have the cargo resupplied at the international space station. And then, going beyond that, we have commercial, some people don't like the term commercial, market based commercial flights that will be going to take crews to the international space station. The theory of this is that the private sector can do it cheaper, which in turn, frees NASA up to pursue expeditions deeper into space. That's, that's the theory.
MCCURDYNow, whether or not that's going to be made to work in practice is what we're undergoing right now. I'm still depressed from the accident, by the way.
GOLBECK(laugh) I'm sure.
MCCURDYIt struck me as hard as the 204 fire, which I remember vividly. I remember exactly where I was when I saw a French newspaper in Quebec, which had the headline in French. I don't read French, but I knew immediately what it meant. Morte. Astronauts. It's hard to take. It's a real setback. I think they can recover, but it's a real setback.
GOLBECKPrivate industry's profit driven, which means time efficiency and cost effectiveness are priorities. Is there worry in the space industry that these new companies are pushing boundaries too fast and now learning lessons the hard way?
MCCURDYLook, we know how to do this. We've been doing it for 60 years. We've had low cost missions that have been underway for at least 20 years. The difficulty with low cost missions is you've got to do them exactly right. You can't, if you will, say cut corners on low cost missions. Space X, for example, manufactures its engines in house. That's a very reliable way to cut the number of people who have to do checks on engines. During the Apollo program, the engines that were built for the second stage of the Saturn rocket were built by a contractor.
MCCURDYWernher von Braun insisted that his engineers take those engines apart at the launch pad or at the Marshall Space Flight Center to make sure they were assembled according to specifications. When Jim Webb called him in to NASA headquarters to complain about this practice, von Braun produced an oily rag from his back pocket and said, see, this is what we find in the engines.
MCCURDYSo, there are techniques that you need to follow to do a low cost, low personnel mission. And I'm nervous that some of those techniques may have been compromised.
GOLBECKJeff, you wrote recently that commercial launches are becoming farther and fewer between. Why are we seeing fewer of them?
FOUSTWell, the fewer between are by American companies. There has been sort of a steady market of commercial launches for communication satellites, the satellites that provide television programming, for example. Roughly, a couple of dozen per year. In recent years though, more and more of those launches have been taking place outside the US. There's a French company called Arianespace that launches rockets from French Guinea in South America.
FOUSTThere is a Russian company that launches proton rockets from Kazakhstan, in the former Soviet Union. They've attracted a lot of business for commercial satellite launches because they were often less expensive than American companies. In the last few years, Space X, because they've developed a new class of launch vehicle, the Falcon 9, that is considerably less expensive than these alternatives, has attracted some of that business and brought some of that business back into the US.
FOUSTSo, we're starting to see more commercial launches in the US, even without the introduction of the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs.
GOLBECKLet's take a couple calls. Let's start with Dan in Falls Church, Va. Dan, you're on the air. Go ahead.
DANHello. Well, thank you to both of the guests for joining us today. Jeff, I'm a follower of yours on Twitter, so glad to hear you on the program. I basically wanted to respond to the question, do these incidents affect commercial space -- the commercial space industry? I can just speak from experience, personally, I think it's an innate human desire to want to reach the skies and see what other sort of existence we could have off of this earth. And, you know, driving is quite dangerous, and yet, I do it every day.
DANAnd millions of people around the world, billions, do it, and we accept that risk, so I don't see this, just based on, you know, my personal experience of human nature, I don't see it affecting it. But I'm wondering if the -- either of panelists, you know, had any different views. Thanks so much.
GOLBECKHoward, you first.
MCCURDYIf we're going to have a tourism market in space, it has to be relatively safe. I remember when Mike Griffith and others were -- the NASA administrator, were talking about the risk factors for space flight. And they would like it to approximate taking a ride with the Blue Angels. Not what you normally insist upon for United Airlines, give it now the combat aircraft, that that would be a way to go. And Virgin Galactic would have to have a safety record that would allow it to do 300 to 600 flights without an accident.
MCCURDYSo, that's considerably different than the current situation for launches, where you might lose one in 100. So, it's a real challenge to get the risk down to that level.
GOLBECKAnd we have a couple tweets that are on slightly different sides of this issue. Justin tweeted, space travel is inherently not safe. That doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying it. And we have a tweet from D. Albers, who says, nothing driven by the profit motive is safe. Jeff, what are your thoughts on this?
FOUSTWell, I don't know if nothing driven by the profit motive is safe. We take a lot of forms of commercial transportation that are driven by the profit motive, like commercial aviation, which is extremely safe, relative to other modes of transportation. So, I don't think it's necessarily an issue with the profit motive. Getting back to the issue of the concept of space tourism, I think one of the challenges is that the word tourism implies a level of safety that is not necessarily there yet with space flight.
FOUSTAnd I think a lot of the people who are buying tickets with Virgin Galactic and X-Core Aerospace and other companies in the space tourism market, do appreciate that. This is much more akin to the people who spend tens of thousands of dollars to climb Mt. Everest, knowing that there's a several percent chance that they will die on that ascent. But they realize, a lot of these initial customers, that they're helping pave the way for future modes of space transportation that will be safer. And will open up markets beyond space tourism. So, I think that's what motivates a lot of people who are buying tickets right now for these ventures.
GOLBECKHoward, in some ways, are private space companies taking the same kind of journey that NASA took in the 1950s and 60s when it lost astronauts in accidents like the Apollo 1 disaster?
MCCURDYI remember the opening scene from section 2 of "The Right Stuff."
MCCURDYWhen the Mercury 7 astronauts were standing, well, they're actors portraying the Mercury 7 astronauts, were standing at what was then Cape Canaveral and watching all of these different rockets blow up, the Juneau Rocket, the Red Stone rocket, the Atlas Rocket. When John Glenn went into orbit, he went into orbit on an Atlas ICBM. It was weighted for a war head. It wasn't rated for human beings, which meant that the Air Force could expect to lose 10 percent of them. NASA said, well, can you get that down to one percent?
MCCURDYAnd the Air Force said, we don't have time. So, they put an escape capsule on the top -- escape rocket on the top of the capsule. So, in a way, it reminds you of that period, but in a way, we've come a long way since then. And I think the international market that Jeff was talking about, is representative of this. NASA's doing this a little more expensively, because we do things more expensively in the United States. And it's doing it more expensively because we want to have our own capability.
MCCURDYAnd it's doing it more expensively because we want to have our own capability. We don't want to rely entirely upon the Russians or the Chinese or the French for access to space.
GOLBECKJeff, when accidents do happen, are these private companies much better equipped to discern what went wrong quickly? We're reading that, for example, the Virgin Galactic ship had a number of cameras inside which will help the investigation go faster.
FOUSTWell, the SpaceShip Two was a test vehicle and it was flying a test flight. So it was very heavily instrumented. I had a lot of cameras on board, a lot of other sensors, transmitting data down to the ground. So they have a lot of information to work with. The NTSB investigator said they had a lot more data to work with here than they typically do with an airplane crash. So certainly in this case they have more data to work with, but they have to work with the NTSB and the FAA and other organizations as part of the investigation.
MCCURDYUnderstand, too, this was a test flight. And it was test flight, it was quite risky. You wouldn't encounter the same sorts of risks on a tourism flight. Hopefully those risks are worked through. And another aspect of it is they had to test fly the vehicle in order to test the new engine and the propellant. It was like the first flight of the Columbia, the shuttle, in 1981. We couldn't test it on the ground or we couldn't test it with robots like the Russians did with their Buran spacecraft.
MCCURDYInstead, we put two astronauts in the seats and I remember Walter Cronkite wiping his brow when the Columbia landed. This was riskier than most people would probably appreciate. You'd rather do a lot of ground tests, some non-piloted flights, and then get the pilots in. But this was precluded by the nature of the technology for Virgin Galactic.
GOLBECKLet's take another call. We have Chris, from Falls Church, Va. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead.
CHRISYeah, hi. I lived, during my high school years, near Cape Canaveral at Melbourne. And everything that went up from there and went bent towards the East never went over civilian population. My first trip past Wallops to go to Chincoteague, I was quite struck by the fact that essentially down range in the early part of the flight they're over civilian area. And I wonder if this recent accident is going to mean there'll be some changes or even maybe a discontinuance of Wallops.
GOLBECKAnd, Jeff, I actually read this weekend that a bunch of cars in the parking lot in Virginia had damage from the rocket that exploded there earlier this week. So do you know are there any changes? Is NASA considering this?
FOUSTI'm sure it's part of the investigation. They're going to look at what they can do to minimize damage in the future. As part of getting a commercial launch license from the FAA -- which is what Orbital Sciences has had for the Antares launch, and Virgin Galactic had a version of that called an experimental permit for SpaceShip Two -- you have to minimize the risk of injuring damage to what's called the uninvolved public, the third parties that aren't directly involved in a launch activity.
FOUSTAnd there's some fairly sophisticated engineering that has to go into that process to demonstrate that you're not putting lives at risk of people who are not involved in the launch. And that's true for any commercial launch or commercial space activity.
GOLBECKHoward, NASA has put its focus on its heavy-lift space launch system, which will provide the power to get its Orion spacecraft to places like Mars. The first test flight for Orion is on December 4th. And I actually get to go to the launch of that, which I'm very…
GOLBECK…excited about. Can you tell us more about the Orion spacecraft and the space launch system that will eventually get it into space?
MCCURDYThere's competition underway in this area as well. SpaceX thinks that it can do it cheaper and better with a variation of its current rockets, by strapping them together. NASA would like to have its own heavy-lift launch vehicle. We're going back to the era when we had the Saturn 5. These launch vehicles don't have quite the capability of the Saturn 5, but they're much beyond what we've had in the past. And this is essential for NASA's deep space exploration ambitions, the journey to Mars, as it's called.
MCCURDYWe have a national policy that says we're going to Mars, whether we're going to land on a moon of Mars or whether we're going to go around Mars or just exactly how we're going to build that capability is still unknown. But in order to get there we need a heavy-lift launch vehicle. But again, the competition -- there will be competition between NASA's vehicle and the private sector and what it can produce.
GOLBECKJeff, last question for you, this Orion test flight next month has been called a "B.F. deal" by NASA administrator Charles Bolden. From what you know about Orion's development do you expect 2014 to end on a better note for space exploration?
FOUSTWell, certainly this vehicle has been extensively tested on the ground. And it's launching in this case on a rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, that's flown a number of times before. So the chances of success are certainly much higher than on other experimental test flights. But you launch and you do a test flight like this to find out things that you wouldn't be able to find out otherwise. So there's always a risk of a failure at some point.
FOUSTThe question is what can you learn in case there is a failure at some point? And how can you make sure that you learn the lessons and don't make the same mistakes in the future? And that's true for government and commercial space ventures.
GOLBECKGo ahead, Howard.
MCCURDYThe first test flight of the Saturn V rocket was a failure, but it didn't have astronauts on board. And the rocket didn't blow up. And NASA learned a lot. The fuel sloshed around in the fuel tanks and they learned how to correct that before they put humans on board. So there is a learning process. They don't call them test flights for nothing.
GOLBECKWell, hopefully going forward we'll see better results than we had in the last week. I'd like to thank both my guests, Jeff Foust, who's a senior staff writer for Space News and editor of The Space Review. Thanks for being with us.
GOLBECKAnd Howard McCurdy, professor of public affairs at American University and co-author of "Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution and Interplanetary Travel." It was great to talk to you.
GOLBECKWe'll continue our conversation after a short break. Stay tuned.
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