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Antares failure
An explosion erupts from the aft end of the Antares rocket shortly after liftoff October 28 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. (credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Space ambition


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Bad things happen when humans reach out into space. People end up dead. Before the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo this seems to have been forgotten or, if not forgotten, at least misplaced or filed away for later. And now we know, or rather we have remembered that there is going to be a steady price, in human lives, for any shift into this new frontier. The fact that there are consistently more deaths from traffic accidents in Tel Aviv than there are in orbit or upon re-entry doesn’t take the edge off. Each life lost is irreplaceable, gone forever. And there is an added element to the loss. In some sense, the loss presents itself as a sacrifice, as meaningful rather than senselessly contingent. And this, we may hope, is a source of some small consolation for those left behind but most directly affected.

As the most complex machine in human history, the Space Shuttle was vulnerable to failure in multiple interesting and mundane ways, but some systems could also routinely fail without throwing everything out of sync. With SpaceShipTwo, matters were quite different.

For the rest of us, there is dreadful sense of inevitability. We know that the death of the SpaceShipTwo co-pilot Michael Alsbury is going to be followed by other losses. No matter what kind of technology we opt for, the end result will be roughly the same. Only the numbers will change. If we want to do anything that enables the radically reduced costs that can finally begin to crack space open, there are going to be tragedies along the way. They are going to happen if we add in the most complex of safeguards (the Space Shuttle approach) and they are going to happen if we do the exact opposite (something closer to the SpaceShipTwo approach). Complexity doesn’t guarantee safety, and neither, it seems, does simplicity because the task itself is inherently dangerous and will remain so until it has been performed successfully, repeatedly, and over the course of a number of years. The development of commercial airlines in the 1950s is a good model here and also a familiar point of comparison. After all, it was far safer to travel after the first five years of transatlantic flights than during them.

Following the two shuttle disasters it is, however, understandable that simplicity, a “gimme that old time aviation” attitude in a new setting, has had good deal of appeal. Although here we might do well to think about just how much work and ingenuity can go into making a product appear simple. Even so, looking at the video footage of the wrecked Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo on the floor of the Mojave Desert, it is quite a shock to come face to face with just how rudimentary and fragile the technology was and just how uncomplicated the failure must also have been. So much about this craft is, after all, built on an inverse-shuttle philosophy. As the most complex machine in human history, the Space Shuttle was vulnerable to failure in multiple interesting and mundane ways, but some systems could also routinely fail without throwing everything out of sync. With SpaceShipTwo, matters were quite different. Only a few things could go wrong but, if any of them did, the failure was likely to be catastrophic. A recent close call, corrected by some impressive piloting skills, should perhaps have been a warning that the odds were starting to turn bad, that it was time to take stock of safety procedures. (Although this is a customary instance of wisdom with hindsight.)

The story which has come out about the accident so far is that the “feathering,” the revolutionary wing mechanism which is held in place by a cable and which, when released, rotates around by 90 degrees in order to increase drag for re-entry, was unlocked too early and by co-pilot error, resulting in catastrophe within seconds. The feather was unlocked, in fact, somewhere closer to Mach 1.0 than to Mach 1.4 on the ascent. This would seem like a crazy rookie mistake to make but, then again, people who earn their living by sitting on top of rockets and being fired up through the atmosphere have to be slightly adrift from the norm. They have to be made of the right stuff or dangerous stuff or exactly the same stuff as the rest of us and therefore liable to crack under very peculiar circumstances and extreme pressure. Yet various other things, beyond human error, also had to be in place in order for the accident to occur. Was there simply a background assumption that nobody would deploy so early, that it would be suicidal to do so, and that therefore the minimal additional precaution (a secondary lever which had to be pulled before normal deployment) was going to be enough to keep everything and everyone safe? On a project so surrounded by safety criticisms, we might expect something a little more robust.

Yet Virgin may (and to judge by Richard Branson’s reactions) will feel aggrieved about the blame, which is starting to fall in their direction rather than resting with Michael Alsbury or with Scaled Composites, who actually designed, assembled, and tested SpaceShipTwo. After all, the story lines itself up all too temptingly, and perhaps deceptively, as a tale of hubris, of flying too close to the Sun and aspiring to a point so high that the only possible outcome was a headlong downward tumble. What genuinely (and for once) does seem to have been human error, in combination with design shortcomings on the safety side, will now attach to their entire space tourism program when, in fact, the problem wasn’t with any of the primary systems that critics have regularly identified as lethal. Here, I am thinking in particular of the use of nitrous oxide, better known for its role in The Fast and the Furious film franchise as a sudden jolt to the system, a way to put cars briefly on speed. Nitrous was implicated in the previous Scaled Composites deaths in the Mojave back in 2007 when three people were killed during a test of elements of the engine being designed for the Virgin spaceship.

The awarding of the lucrative $1.9-billion ISS supply contract to Orbital Sciences as early as 2008 is now starting to look suspiciously like an attempt to preserve and ethos of competition where, in point of the rival technologies, there is none.

Yet the Virgin Galactic publicity machine has, to some extent, positioned itself directly in the danger zone. It has not been shy about exploiting the mystique and anti-red-tape reputation of Burt Rutan, the X Prize winner, founder of Scaled Composites, and chief designer of SpaceShipTwo. Fairly or unfairly, the most recent death will be added to the previous three, with resulting suspicions that operations in the Mojave have been just a little too influenced by the maverick ethos and by dreams of a forgotten age of lonesome heroes. Rutan is, of course, a distance away from his image and now from the process itself, having retired three years ago. Yet, while a very private figure, he remains, at the same time, a pin-up for those who believe fervently in the special virtues of the private space sector and in no-holds-barred space entrepreneurship. The week of the Virgin crash was, perhaps, the worst week to date for such ambitions given that Orbital Services, with a $1.9-billion contract to resupply the International Space Station, suffered a failure of its Antares rocket only seconds into lift-off.

NASA’s safety officers, peering through their makeshift guiding wires, saw Antares go dangerously off course and felt that the best course of action was to make sure that nobody on the ground got hurt, although by the time they acted the rocket was already doomed. With the trajectory veering askew, the ultimate safety measure was put into effect. The contrast here is instructive. Chastened by events, NASA is at times almost pathologically safety conscious. And while Virgin Galactic and Rutan’s Scaled Composites have never actually been the mavericks and rebels that they sometimes pretend to be, they are learning the hard way that something is always liable to turn up. You can streamline the technology but nobody can or does plan for everything.

Yet, with regard to the Antares rocket, NASA does still have a good deal to be safety conscious about. It is only after the Antares accident that many of us have come to realize how little the Orbital Sciences technology matches up to the standards set by the other, and altogether more successful, commercial ISS supplier, SpaceX. While the latter has already delivered a new generation of rockets, Orbital Sciences has been using technology from the Russian space program. And here, I do not mean the technology that regularly blasts people off from Baikonur with almost mundane reliability. Instead, I mean technology from the old Soviet-era program way back in the end days of Apollo. Antares uses AJ26 engines, reworked versions of the NK-33 engines built by the Russians in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Impressive technology for the time, but it is not our time.

Admittedly, the plan is not, and never was, to stick with these monsters. They are a stand-in until something newer and better is put in place. But a thought does spring to mind: the awarding of the lucrative $1.9-billion ISS supply contract to Orbital Sciences as early as 2008 is now starting to look suspiciously like an attempt to preserve and ethos of competition where, in point of the rival technologies, there is none. SpaceX win hands down. They are, by far, the clearest private success story to date. Nothing, so far, compares to them and they don’t make a song and dance about it.

It seems that there are still some things that space agencies do well, out in the open and without too much fear about competitors picking up on what’s going on, things that the private sector is still not effectively geared for.

But there is a further twist to the story. While other players in the private sector, with some exceptions, have been missing the mark, the Virgin and Orbital Services failures have almost overshadowed two significant state-sector successes. The first, by the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) whose lunar flyby spacecraft (nicknamed “Xiaofei” for “little flier”) carried out its mission and successfully touch back down in Mongolia at the end of October. The mission followed up their first lunar soft landing, with a rover, last December. (The rover has had difficulties but it was only ever a step in a larger project.) The second, by the European Space Agency, is the successful rendezvous with a comet. The plan and astronavigation involved in the ten-year Rosetta mission, not only to rendezvous but to send a probe down onto the comet’s surface, has been rather intricate, involving three gravitational slingshots from the Earth.

It seems that there are still some things that space agencies do well, out in the open and without too much fear about competitors picking up on what’s going on, things that the private sector is still not effectively geared for because they take a long time during which there is no realistic prospect of a direct commercial return. In the case of China’s lunar ambitions, there is, of course, the prospect of helium-3 mining (in which the Chinese have, admittedly, shown considerable interest) but that remains some way off. That is a bit distant to entice any of the more serious private players to get involved in a heavy-investments way. They remain bound closer to Earth. The private sector may, admittedly, be indispensable to current space ambitions. But it has at least as many anomalies and flaws as the old command economy. Not necessarily the same anomalies and flaws, but enough and sometimes with much the same human cost.


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