NASA's Orbital Report Underscores that Spaceflight Is Tricky

The Orbital rocket, pre-explosion.
The Orbital rocket, pre-explosion.
Photo from NASA

Orbital Sciences has been claiming that it will launch rockets again by March 2016, but a scathing NASA report argues that isn't a particularly smart plan. In fact, the flight plan issued by one of the companies contracted to do commercial resupply missions to the International Space Station is completely unrealistic, according to a report recently issued by NASA's Office of the Inspector General. 

Last October, Orbital's Antares rocket exploded six seconds after it lifted off the launchpad. The rocket, which was launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in eastern Virginia, was an unmanned cargo spacecraft destined for the International Space Station. Orbital has been on hiatus ever since the explosion. 

That might not have been such a big deal for the whole commercial spaceflight endeavor except that it was followed by another mishap with another company charged with resupplying the ISS, SpaceX. In June, there was the SpaceX explosion when a Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated over Florida. The following month SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced that the explosion was caused when a strut holding a high pressure helium bottle failed during the second stage of the launch. SpaceX has also delayed any further launches until next spring.

Last Thursday, NASA's Inspector General's Office released a report on the Orbital explosion and the impact it had on the agency's resupply program for the ISS. The report didn't shy away from pointing out the problems that occurred even though NASA had two "redundant" companies in its $3.5 billion commercial resupply contracts for the ISS. The main issue was glaringly obvious: When both companies had failures (aka their rockets blew up) NASA was left with few options to get supplies up to the ISS. Instead of using commercial companies, NASA has been stuck sending up supplies with the Russians and the Japanese.

This whole mess underscores a basic truth about spaceflight: It's more difficult than it looks to launch things (or astronauts) into space. Of course, anyone who has read Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" knows that it has never really been the easiest thing in the world to design spacecraft. ("Our rockets always blow up," is a refrain for the first half of the book because that was what happened more often than not in the early days of the Mercury space program.) Still, when President Barack Obama scuttled President George W. Bush's Constellation program at the same time that he allowed the space shuttle program to end, the plan was that NASA would depend on the Russians for access to the ISS while simultaneously transitioning over to commercial companies — Orbital and SpaceX all won contracts — to get to space. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out according to plan. 

Orbital is currently trying to repair its Antares rocket and replace the engine, but swapping out a rocket engine is an incredibly delicate operation — one wrong tweak and the whole thing goes boom on the launchpad again. That wouldn't be such a big deal except that Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to fulfill by the end of 2016, so they're on a clock to get the Antares up and running again so they can finish out the contract. Orbital has already combined the five launches it was supposed to do into four. On top of that, the company is piggy-backing on United Launch Alliance (the federal government’s main launch provider for military satellites and complex science missions) into space. Since the Antares won't be repaired in time, Orbital is slated to send up its Cygnus cargo craft atop the United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket for the next two launches. 

And all of this rushing isn't sitting well with NASA's Inspector General's Office. The report points out that Orbital's Cygnus has never been launched on the Atlas V and the plans to move forward in December leave no time for testing to try and prevent another very expensive rocket explosion. The fast pace also doesn't allow enough time for Orbital to conduct flight tests on the new Antares engine, which means once again they could be leaving themselves open to another very expensive fireworks show. 

And that wasn't the end of the criticisms. The report pointed out that NASA missed opportunities both before and after the Orbital explosion to negotiate lower prices with the company. The OIG report also highlighted that contracting with both SpaceX and Orbital wasn't quite redundant enough, since both companies had incidents that made NASA turn to the Japanese to get supplies to the ISS. 

In short, this is one of the few times in history where a government agency was redundant, but it failed to be redundant enough. Go figure. 

See, the problem with all of this is that NASA announced last year that astronauts will be aboard commercial spaceflights somewhere in the near future. It's expensive and embarrassing when these un-crewed rockets erupt into flames on the launchpad, but it will be something else entirely if there are astronauts aboard. Boeing and SpaceX got the crewed flight contracts. NASA announced it's hoping to be done catching rides with the Russians by 2017. Let's hope all of the kinks of commercial launches are worked out by then. 


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