Conquering Space – Commercial Crossroads

richard branson

The recent Orbital Sciences launch mishap was closely followed by a tragic day for Virgin Galactic and the spaceflight community in general. Shane Hannon analyses the incidents and considers where the commercial space industry goes from here.

John F. Kennedy challenged America to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s, a feat he himself would sadly not witness, having been assassinated six years before the Apollo 11 lunar landing. In a speech at Rice University in 1962 he argued that the United States chose to go to the Moon “…and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Spaceflight is a risky and bold business that puts not only tax dollars and reputations on the line, but human life to boot. The last week of October 2014 is one which will surely go down in infamy in the annals of space exploration. Kennedy’s words certainly ring true; these two recent commercial catastrophes only serve to prove that the conquest of space is not an easy undertaking.

On October 28th an Antares rocket with a two-stage booster exploded between 10-12 seconds into its flight from Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Orbital Sciences Corporation mission was set to take its Cygnus cargo spacecraft with science experiments, spare parts and non-critical crew supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) in Low Earth orbit. Orbital Sciences is a private company that has a $1.9bn eight-flight contract with NASA and Orbital themselves are responsible for compensating NASA for the loss; cargo destroyed included 26 tiny Earth-observing satellites from the San Francisco-based Planet Labs, a spacecraft built to test technology that could potentially be used for mining asteroids, and 18 student experiments that included investigations into crystal growth in space and how microgravity might affect the shelf life of milk.

The automated Cygnus cargo spacecraft had been named the SS Deke Slayton in honour of one of the original seven Mercury astronauts. Slayton served as Director of Flight Crew Operations throughout the Apollo program, a role which resulted in him being the person who chose the crewmembers for each mission. He would later fly in space himself as a member of the U.S. crew on the joint American/Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in 1975. This failed Antares mission was the 5th launch of the craft in the past eighteen months and was set to be the 4th Cygnus cargo delivery mission. The Cygnus was set to remain berthed to the ISS for 5 weeks; during that time the emptied cargo craft would have been filled with materials for disposal and sent on a controlled re-entry into Earth’s fiery atmosphere.

Orbital’s Executive Vice-President Frank Culbertson commented on the launch failure in the hours following the event. “It is a tough time to lose a launch vehicle like this. It’s not as tragic as losing life associated with it… all we lost was cargo. That hardware however is very valuable to the company and to our customers.” He went on to look ahead to the future of Orbital with caution. “As far as the next steps for Antares, we will not fly until we understand the root cause and the corrective action necessary to ensure this doesn’t happen again.” Culbertson himself is no stranger to spaceflight; he is a former NASA astronaut and veteran of three space shuttle flights as well as a long-duration stay aboard the International Space Station in 2001. During those 129 days aboard the ISS, the 9/11 terrorist attacks shook the world, with Culbertson the only American citizen not on planet Earth when the attacks occurred. His poignant photographs from orbit of the smoke billowing over lower Manhattan shortly after the attacks are a powerful reminder of a day that will go down in history.

What exactly caused the Antares rocket to fail is still unknown, with the investigation set to take quite some time. The pre-launch and launch sequence were both nominal, but shortly after launch the first stage seemed to fail and the vehicle subsequently lost its propulsive capability and came falling back to ground. This Antares rocket was taller and heavier than any of the four previous launches of the same rocket type. Two modified Aerojet AJ-26 engines fuelled by liquid oxygen and kerosene were used – the same type built in the 1970s for use with the former Soviet Union’s N-1 moon rocket.

The launch site itself avoided significant damage, with some property damage limited to the south end of the launch facility on Wallops Island. There was however significant debris located in the area following the incident, with NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assisting Orbital with their investigations. Wallops Director Bill Wrobel has tried to allay fears that this will cause major setbacks for the commercial space industry. “In the coming days and weeks ahead, we’ll continue to assess the damage on the island and begin the process of moving forward to restore our space launch capabilities. There’s no doubt in my mind we will rebound stronger than ever.”

The failure of an unmanned rocket is one thing, but when human life is lost the dangers of space exploration, even at the testing stage, become all too real. Thirty-nine-year-old co-pilot Michael Alsbury was tragically killed when Virgin Galactic’s private orbital spaceplane SpaceShipTwo (SS2) was lost in flight and slammed into the Mojave Desert in California after being released from WhiteKnightTwo, its carrier aircraft. Father of two Alsbury had over 15 years flying experience and 1600 hours as a test pilot and test engineer. It was his 9th flight aboard SpaceShipTwo and he had been the co-pilot for the historic first powered flight of SS2 in April 2013.

Virgin Galactic is the brainchild of English business magnate and investor Sir Richard Branson. The company is selling tickets for suborbital trips into space on its two-pilot, six-passenger vehicles for $250,000, and celebrities like Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie and Justin Bieber are all amongst the over 800 people to have already purchased their tickets. Some sectors of the mainstream media are mentioning the possibility of this tragedy putting people off buying tickets in the future, but Robert Pearlman, editor of collectSPACE, an online publication and community for space history enthusiasts, thinks those who bought tickets knew the risks of what they were getting involved in. “SpaceShipTwo passengers are considered within the same adventure travel community that includes mountain climbing, deep sea diving, and other inherently risky activities that are undertaken with the knowledge that one has more than a reasonable chance of dying while doing them.”

The tragic flight on October 31st was SpaceShipTwo’s 55th time airborne, 35th time flying free from its carrier aircraft, and 4th time firing its liquid and solid fuel engine in flight. This flight was however the first in-flight test of a new hybrid polyamide-based fuel grain rocket engine, although it had of course been fully ground-tested. The day after the crash, a visibly shaken Branson spoke to the media of how “In testing boundaries of human capability and technology, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Yesterday, we fell short.”

The pilot who survived the crash has been named as 43-year-old Peter Siebold. He suffered a serious shoulder injury that required surgery but is described as alert and talking with family and doctors. Siebold parachuted to safety and was found just over 1km from the main fuselage. Co-pilot Alsbury meanwhile was found dead still in his cockpit seat. Both pilots are employees of Scaled Composites, a division of Northrop Grumman and the company hired by Virgin Galactic to design and build the SpaceShipTwo. Alsbury is actually the fourth Scaled Composites employee to die while supporting the development of SS2, after three workers were killed in a ground-based rocket motor test explosion in 2007.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has already begun its initial investigations into what caused the crash, but it may take a year before they can report their findings and recommendations. During that time, Virgin Galactic will be allowed to continue its testing provided a safe way forward can be identified. The huge 8km debris field is already giving acting NTSB chairman Christopher Hart an indication into the events leading up to the crash. “When the debris field spans that large an area, then we know there was an in-flight separation. If they had crashed together, all the pieces would have been close together.”

Another early observation by the NTSB noted that the rotating tail boom of the vehicle (a key safety feature for atmospheric re-entry) inadvertently rotated early. This ‘feathering’ function folds the vehicle in half to create more atmospheric drag, but deployed at Mach 1 instead of 1.4 times the speed of sound as it should have. This is not necessarily the primary cause of the accident, but is a noteworthy observation so early on in the NTSB investigation. The propellant tanks and engine were also intact at the crash site, which would indicate there was no explosion.

The desire to continue within Virgin Galactic is certainly there, and a statement released by them shortly after the crash points to the advantages of having easy commercial access to outer space. “Just like early air or sea travel, it is hard and complicated, but we believe that a thriving commercial space industry will have far-reaching benefits for humanity, technology and research for generations to come.”

Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronaut Gus Grissom once said that “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life”. He himself gave his life with his Apollo 1 crewmates Ed White and Roger Chaffee in a fire during a ground test on January 27, 1967, a month before their scheduled launch. The ensuing investigation and corrections made to the Apollo capsule helped Kennedy’s goal come to fruition by ironing out all the major and minor issues that existed with the spacecraft. And although Alsbury’s death will be understandably hard to stomach for those in the commercial space industry, there is no reason why the same cannot occur in this instance.

Some see the recent Orbital Sciences launch failure and Virgin Galactic tragedy as the death knell for commercial space transport and tourism. However the companies in question will not let that happen, and we may merely be at a crossroads in terms of the future of the private space enterprise. Here’s hoping Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic choose the right direction on the infinite road of space exploration.

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