nasaAn Antares-130 unmanned rocket owned by Orbital Sciences Corporation (a US private space company), carrying 30 different payloads[1], exploded on September 28, 2014, about 10 seconds after lifting off from a commercial space facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. A Cygnus spacecraft was the main payload of the rocket and it was carrying in 2.293 kg of cargo destined for the orbiting astronauts on the International Space Station - ISS (food, scientific experiments and other supplies), and a prototype satellite destined to develop technology for mining asteroids[2].However, NASA says that the ISS is in no danger because there was no critical cargo aboard and that the station can remain functioning without resupply for four to six months. In addition, an unmanned Russian Progress supply ship was successfully launched a few hours after the disaster, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan, on October 29, 2014, and a SpaceX Dragon is scheduled to launch on December 9, 2014.

NASA has tapped Orbital Sciences in a $1.9 billion contract to provide eight cargo delivery missions to the International Space Station using the company's Antares rockets and unmanned Cygnus spacecraft. The company successfully launched two test flights in 2013 and its official cargo missions to the space station in January and in July 2014.

The total cost of the rocket and supplies was over $200 million, plus damage to the ground facilities. No injuries were reported. However, the exact extent of the launch accident is still unknown, and parts of the mission were covered by insurance.

In-depth investigation into the launch failure will be provided by NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the rocket's builder, the Orbital Sciences Corporation, and the investigation is expected to take at least several weeks. “It is far too early to know the details of what happened […] As soon as we understand the cause we will begin the necessary work to return to flight to support our customers and the nation’s space program”, Orbital executive vice president Frank Culbertson, a former NASA astronaut said[3].

Andy Pasztor wrote for the Wall Street Journal that “the events are bound to ground the Antares rocket for at least several months, while NASA and company experts dissect data, determine what went wrong and put fixes in place. In the meantime SpaceX will have to try to pick up the slack despite its already crowded manifest and lengthy delays in launching satellites for other customers”. He also stated that “cargo vehicles from Russia, Japan and Europe also can carry supplies up to the station, and astronauts typically have adequate backup food and other necessities to carry them through such emergencies. But for the longer term, NASA is dependent on having both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences provide cargo transportation”[4].

In applying NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO), on December 23, 2008, the Agency has awarded a pair of contracts to two private aerospace firms – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp, seeking to haul vital supplies to and from the International Space Station[5]. When the U.S. space shuttle program ended in 2011 leaving no government-operated program to send humans to the International Space Station, several private companies raced to restore the U.S. access to the ISS and, in a broader sense, to outer space[6].

There are two main currents of opinion about President Obama’s decision in 2010 of privatizing transport of cargo and humans into orbit. That year, criticizing the decision, former astronauts Neil Armstrong, James Lovell and Eugene Cernan wrote in an open letter that“the availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the President’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope”[7]. In the opinion of Leroy Chiao, former NASA astronaut and commander aboard the International Space Station “without a doubt, critics will arise and question why we are entrusting cargo deliveries and future crew exchanges to commercial companies. The answer is simple: It is the logical evolution of technology and commercialization, following the same path as the development of the airplane and commercial air transportation”[8].

In our opinion, the new U.S. space strategy substantially differs from the previous one, and also from the strategies of other space powers, and it’s difficult to reach so early a clear and definitive conclusion of any attempt to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. One thing is clear, anyhow: The U.S. decision to concomitantly choose two different private companies to assure the transport of cargo to ISS wasn’t wrong at all. The country’s capability to regularly send supply to astronauts is assured even if one of the companies could delay launches for different reasons. In spite of the recent accident, the U.S. still holds a major position in the space race, but some newcomers – including China – are also able to reach more and more ambitious strategically significant goals in exploring and using the outer space.

 

[1]The Antares-130 was also carrying the Flock-1d array of 26 satellites as well as Arkyd-3, Cygnus CRS-3, and the GOMX-2 and RACE CubeSat, Gunter’s Space Page reports, at the Internet address http://space.skyrocket.de/doc_chr/lau2014.htm

[2] Irene KLOTZ, “Orbital Sciences' unmanned rocket explodes on liftoff in Virginia: NASA”, Reuters, October 28, 2014, at the Internet address http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/28/us-space-orbital-idUSKBN0IH2F220141028

[3]Kerry SHERIDAN, “Orbital rocket explodes after launch”, Space Travel, at the Internet address  http://www.space-travel.com/reports/Orbital_rocket_explodes_after_launch_999.html

[4] Andy PASZTOR, “Unmanned Rocket Explodes at Liftoff in Virginia”, Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2014, at the Internet address http://online.wsj.com/articles/commercial-supply-rocket-explodes-at-liftoff-in-virginia-1414536857

[5]Tariq MALIQ, “NASA Taps SpaceX, Orbital Sciences to Haul Cargo to Space Station”, Space.com, December 28, 2003, at the Internet addresshttp://www.space.com/6257-nasa-taps-spacex-orbital-sciences-haul-cargo-space-station.html

[6]Kerry SHERIDAN, op. cit.

[7] Neil ARMSTRONG, Commander, Apollo 11, James LOWELL, Commander, Apollo 13, Eugene CERNAN, Commander, Apollo 17, Obama's devastating Nasa cuts, The Guardian,  April 15, 2010, at the Internet addresshttp://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/apr/15/obama-nasa-space-neil-armstrong

[8] Leroy CHIAO, “Rockets blow up; we move on”, CNN, October 29, 2014, at the Internet address http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/29/opinion/chiao-failed-space-launch/index.html

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