Another rocket launch, another “bad day.” Another thrilling launch, followed by a very brief moment of, “Huh, what’s that?” Then nothing but blue sky and falling bits of smoking debris. Another punch in the gut.
Very preliminary indications are that something happened with the second stage as it was being pressurized prior to being lit off after the first stage disconnected. There may have been some sort of rupture in the fuel tank, but the first stage seemed to be running just fine right up until the point where all of that venting fuel from the second stage hit the exhaust plume and ignited.
We have no idea how long the investigation will take or when SpaceX will return to flight. It won’t be the two years or more that NASA took after Challenger and Columbia, but it won’t be just a month or two either.
Last October, the Orbital Sciences Antares exploded just above the pad at Wallops Island in Virginia. They’re still figuring out what went wrong with their rocket and trying to fix it, but in the meantime they’re getting ready to return to flight using an Atlas V rocket to take their Cygnus vehicle to ISS.
Just a few weeks ago, a Russian Soyuz malfunctioned after reaching orbit and sent the Progress cargo vehicle tumbling out of control and unable to reach ISS.
Now with the SpaceX accident, that’s three cargo launch failures on three separate vehicles in the last eight months. We’re running out of ways to get supplies and materials up to ISS, and with Dragon down for an undetermined time, we have pretty close to zero ability to get anything down from ISS other than the crew. Returning Soyuz crews have enough room for a couple of pounds of stuff, but that’s nothing compared to the hundreds and thousands of pounds that Dragon can bring down. And don’t even get me started on the tons that the Space Shuttle could bring down if they weren’t in museums…
Dragon, like the Cygnus and Progress vehicles before it, was uncrewed, carrying only supplies to ISS. No lives were lost, just material. Some of it (a replacement US space suit, a docking port for the upcoming crewed Dragon and crewed CT-100 from Boeing, science experiments) will be a pain to rebuild and replace, but it can be done. Some of the scientific hardware destroyed was actually rebuilt experiments from students, replacing experiments destroyed in the Cygnus accident.
The ISS crew’s in no danger, they have provisions (food, water, air, experiments, replacement parts) to last them until the end of October if nothing else gets to them. There is another Progress scheduled for Thursday night (in the US) this week, and the next Japanese HTV cargo ship in August. The Antares launch on the Delta V might also be able to be moved up into late October or November.
Long term, the most significant effect might be to cause delays in the Commercial Crew program. Right now the only way to get humans up to the ISS or back down is by using a Russian Soyuz. The SpaceX Crewed Dragon and the Boeing CT-100 are supposed to launch in 2017, but this could get delayed. It was already being threatened with delays because Congress, in their completely finite wisdom (or complete lack thereof) has cut about $250M from this year’s budget for Commercial Crew. Part of the reason that Congress cut the Commercial Crew budget seems to be that they don’t want to fund development by both Boeing and by SpaceX – they just want one or the other. Some of them will point at today’s accident and say, “See, we were right!”
In fact, it proves the exact opposite, showing just how wrong they are. Getting off the planet into space remains one of the single most difficult tasks ever faced by humans. It’s dangerous, it’s risky, it allows for almost zero tolerance for mistakes or bad luck. 99.9999999% of a million or more complex events all have to work perfectly, or it’s “a bad day.” When an accident happens, the organization flying that vehicle has to figure out what happened and how to prevent it in the future. That always takes months and sometimes takes years. While that organization is grounded, you MUST have other independent organizations with similar capabilities that can keep flying and take up the slack. There truly are no other options if we intend to be a spacefaring species.
Here’s another thing for our Congress critters to think about. Right now we’re 100% dependent on the Russians to take our astronauts up to ISS and to bring them back down. We’re paying the Russians for this service. Last I looked it was about $65M per seat, but may have gone up again. So when Congress says they want to save money by cutting the Commercial Crew budget by $250M, do they not realize that the delays that cut will cause will force us to spend over $550M to buy more Soyuz seats from the Russians? Tell me again, Senator, how is paying $550M to the Russians a better deal than spending $250M here in the US?
More importantly yet, our political relationship with the Russian government continues to deteriorate. While the personnel at NASA, ESA, and Roscosmos all work together well, without any regard for international politics, the upper levels of both governments are a different story. Things got frosty after Russian invaded Ukraine, and they continue to go downhill. We’re now putting heavy weaponry back into Eastern Europe just in case it’s needed should Russia decide to invade anyone else. At what point do the Russians just flat out say, “Keep your cash, get your astronauts up and down on your own. Oops, right, you can’t! Sucks to be you!!”
Congress’s response if that happens will be…what? “Our bad, never saw that coming.” Or maybe, “It’s all NASA’s fault!! Fix it!!” (Two guesses, first one doesn’t count.)
SpaceX will figure out what happened today, they’ll make changes, and they’ll re-launch. With luck it will only be six to eight months, during which time our Japanese friends will launch their HTV, the Russians will get the Progress vehicles going again (no pressure for this week’s launch, guys!), and Orbital Systems will get their Cygnus flying again. Eventually SpaceX and Boeing will start launching crewed vehicles from US soil, even if it doesn’t happen in 2017.
I have no doubt that there will come a day, hopefully in my lifetime, when SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital, ESA, Sierra Nevada, JAXA, Roscosmos, and NASA are just the oldest and most experienced of dozens of launch providers.
I’m waiting for a day when there are multiple space stations in LEO (Low Earth Orbit), some as research labs, some as factories, some as solar power plants, some as construction sites for deep space vehicles, and some as hotels and recreation centers.
I’m waiting for the day when going for a week in zero-G at a LEO hotel is no more expensive or exotic than a week’s cruise through the Caribbean or Mediterranean is now.
But today was not that day. Today was a bad day.