Can Space Industries Survive an Explosive Week

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Screen Shot 2014-11-02 at 9.19.23 PMIt is a dumb headlineCan Space Industry Survive 2 Explosions in 4 Days?  Of course it can.  It’s a stupid headline to generate sensationalism.  There is an old saying in the space industry.  It doesn’t count until you blow a couple up.  And, in the space industry, there is a wicked and almost dogmatic macabre sense of humor.  It’s a deadly industry.  We’re dealing with cutting-edge technology that is highly explosive. When rockets explode people die.  It’s that simple.  It’s tragic, and heart-breaking.  I still can’t watch footage of the Challenger explosion.  But, you will never find a more staunch advocate of space exploration.

Exploring a new frontier is not safe.  We will never know the countless number of men and women who died trying to reach the New World.  We will never know how many men and women died exploring the Wild West (my great-great grandparents included), but that did not stop the great migration west.  When people explore, people die.  Maybe, in our brave new world where children must wear helmets to swing, or ride their tricycle, one can see why the thrill is gone.  We can understand why something as dangerous as space flight might be considered not worthy of survival.  Then again, I’m surprised we’re even allowed to ride in cars, these days.

Orbital is focusing its initial investigation on a Russian made engine, that has performance problems.

“...So why is this launch failure so significant? One reason may be that the rocket was owned by a private company, Orbital Sciences Corporation. It is one of the two companies (the other being SpaceX) contracted by NASA to resupply the ISS following the end of the space-shuttle programme.

Orbital Sciences Corporation has a proud record of successful satellite launches, but this was only its second rocket to the ISS and third launch of their Antares medium-class launch vehicle. It is probably unfortunate that the company website states that Antares is designed to have a 95% (or greater) launch reliability….”

Orbital’s stock dropped by 15% following the explosion.  According to Space.com, up until the end of 2013, there had been a total of something like 6,584 spacecraft launched.  There have been 549 failures with a 92% success rate.  Currently, there is a 98.7% success rate for the US Delta II, 97.1% for the Soyuz, and 94.6% for the Ariane 5.

Space.Com
Space.Com

Then again, how safe is private industry? If you can’t trust GM to tell you what’s wrong with a faulty car, can you trust Richard Branson?

“...Some experts said they worry that private industry may just not be as safe as the government when it comes to going into space.  Jerry Linenger, a former astronaut who narrowly survived a 1997 fire on the Russian space station Mir, said private industry lacks the experience and the advocates for safety that NASA had when he was launching into space. He pointed to former moonwalking astronaut John Young, who NASA encouraged to raise safety issues and slow things down.

Watching the Orbital Sciences accident on Tuesday, Linenger said, “it was blatantly obvious that it is a dangerous operation that is very nearly on the edge,” yet private companies talk of doing it better, faster and cheaper. Then they find out that was naive, he said….”

Add 39-year-old test pilot Michael Alsbury to the list of brave men and women who have given their lives for this brave new frontier.  On Friday, he gave his all, piloting SpaceShipTwo with a new motor and plastic based fuel.  The fuel had, according to Branson, been tested on the ground.  That’s where they made their critical mistake, not testing it with an unmanned vehicle.

Daily Mail
Daily Mail

It’s a fact of life that rockets.  It’s also a fact of life that with private industry, and a libertarian minded billionaire, rules are made to be broken.  According to Geoff Daly, an engineer who has filed many complaints about the use of nitrous oxide as a fuel, this is going to hurt the industry.  He began a series of complaints, back in 2007, about the fuel.

“...Daly was co-author of a critical report on the 2007 incident at Scaled Composites, the company owned by Northrop Grumman Corp. that designed SpaceShipTwo. The report was critical of Virgin’s claims that nitrous oxide was safe to use in engines for passenger flight, and it complained that the public was never given a full accounting of what happened.

“Something is wrong here,” Daly said Sunday. “We offered to talk, give our experience. It was either ignored or totally dismissed.” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides issued a statement Sunday to tamp down conjecture about the cause of the crash.

“Now is not the time for speculation,” he said. “Now is the time to focus on all those affected by this tragic accident and to work with the experts at the NTSB, to get to the bottom of what happened on that tragic day, and to learn from it so that we can move forward safely with this important mission.”

In a June 2013 letter, Daly asked the Federal Aviation Administration to put a hold on an experimental flight permit for SpaceShipTwo to ensure the safety of personnel on the ground and in the spacecraft.

“Remember, three people have been killed and numerous persons injured by a prior explosion involving (nitrous oxide) in this motor design,” he wrote as a member of a group that he said numbered about 300 aerospace propulsion engineers worldwide. “We do not need another incident on the ground/flight line or in the air.”…”

Raw Story
Raw Story

Bad engine and craft designs kill people.  So do accidents.  It sounds heartless to discuss this, but it is an extremely dangerous industry.  The test pilots knew what they were doing.  The real problem is in dealing with people who have more money than ethics and common sense.  They can buy who they want, what they want, when they want it, and face no adverse consequences.  They have enough money to with-stand a mega law-suit.  Let’s face it, they don’t play by the rules the rest of us do.  Space exploration is no different.

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