Science & Astronomy
29. October 2014

Launching rockets into outer space has never been easy – there’s a reason it’s called rocket science. Occasionally things go wrong, often in testing, sometimes on actual launches. Rockets may misbehave by not going where they should go or even refuse to work altogether and simply blow up – that’s their nature and that’s what happened yesterday with Orbital Science’s third cargo flight to the International Space Station. The Antares rocket, all 40 meters of it, first appeared to launch normally, but then there was an explosion at the rocket’s business end only a couple of seconds into the flight. It was followed by an even bigger explosion when it crashed back to earth in a spectacular, but also rather terrifying fireball.

There is no denying that this is a major incident, even a catastrophe – but one that resulted in no loss of life and was actually a successful demonstration that even a rocket explosion of this dimension can still be safe. The fascinating part was, of course the explosion itself, because nothing like this has happened with an active launch to the ISS before – some videos, like this from the NASA TV stream and another one documenting the shock and panic at the press site show the immense force of the explosion. Fortunately nobody was injured in the accident, the only casualties are the rocket and the Cygnus space freighter with its content. The press conference fortunately revealed that there will be no serious shortages on the ISS because of the lost freight, but the sad side of it is that Cygnus had a lot of scientific experiments, many of them from students, on board which now have been destroyed. This means that a lot of scientists and would-be scientists have seen their months and maybe years of work destroyed in a blink of an eye, but this is always a risk they have to take when sending research to space. [Update: not all the payloady might be lost and the pad seems not to be as heavily damaged as first thought, as this article indicates!]

Commercial spaceflight is still in its infancy and the two private companies, Orbital Sciences and Space X, who are currently supplying the ISS with space freighters in addition to the Russian Progress and the Japanese HTV, have had an exemplary good success rate, but this kind of accident is not entirely unprecedented. While it did not blow up on launch, in 2011 a Russian Progress transporter was lost on the way to orbit, but it did not have much impact on the station’s operations. The ORB-3 Cygnus flight was to be the third flight of the company to the ISS, while Space X has recently completed its fifth flight, so seven out of eight flights may look bad on first glance, but are still a good success rate. It is not clear wha the contractual and financial consequences for Orbital Sciences are, but the launch failure will not be the end of the company.

The media is, as usual, jumping to rather wild conclusions, but at this point not much is known about the actual nature of the accident. Much is being made out of the fact that Orbital Sciences is using old stockpiled and refurbished Sovjet-era rocket engines, but until the investigation has found out the actual cause of the explosion, it is way too early to say that the engines are at fault. Likewise some media outlets like CNN made a big fuss out of the sidenote that the Cygnus transporter apparently carried some sort of crypto gear and the cleanup activities are supposedly being slowed down because of it, but this is also just bad media sensationalism at work and it appeared that this might have been even a misunderstanding. [Update: There are also some articles like this on BusinessWeek that say the refurbished engines have already been slated for retirement, but this was already known long before the accident because there is only a finite amount of Soviet-era engines. Another article from Forbes, citing an unnamed “launcher engineer” for some unsubstantiated facts, even takes the whole commercial spaceflight program into question!]

The bottom line is that the ISS, Orbital Sciences and the Commercial Resupply Services program will survive this accident and it certainly does not prohibit other supply flights from launching – in fact only shortly after the accident a Progress transporter launched from Baikonur and in December the next Dragon freighter from SpaceX is also going to go up. NASA has already made a statement that they will continue to support Orbital Sciences and there is no indication that they might drop them because of the accident.

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