Editorial | Odds Catch up with NASA, Orbital

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The dramatic failure of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s cargo-carrying Antares rocket shortly after liftoff Oct. 28 is obviously a setback for NASA, the company, the international space station program and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia.

It also is a blow to the researchers and private companies that had hardware aboard the vehicle, which was making a logistics run to the international space station. Imaging startup Planet Labs lost 26 small satellites in the failed mission, for example.

But while the spectacle of the tremendous low-altitude explosion earned it the “catastrophic” label, the mishap was by no means fatal in any sense of the word, nor is this type of thing entirely unexpected. Antares, which along with its companion Cygnus cargo capsule was developed with funding help from NASA, was making just its fifth flight, the previous four having been successful.

As NASA and Orbital officials repeatedly said during a press conference after the event, it’s far too early to say what happened although clearly the rocket’s first stage faltered. Launch video shows an explosion in the first stage just seconds after liftoff, after which the vehicle appeared to hesitate in midair before dropping back down and disappearing in a giant fireball. A failure investigation led by Orbital with support from NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration is well underway, but these things typically take weeks to months.

Thankfully, there were no injuries on the ground and the damage appears to be confined to the immediate vicinity of the launch pad on the south end of Wallops Island. Further, there is no immediate threat of a supply shortage on the station — the Cygnus capsule was carrying mostly experiment hardware and space station spares, none of which is critical, NASA said. 

Precisely because launches don’t always go as planned, the outpost is stocked with enough essentials like food and water to last well into next year. Meanwhile, NASA and its station partners have other logistics services at their disposal: A Russian Progress freighter launched and docked with the station Oct. 29 and a Space Exploration Technologies Falcon 9 rocket is slated to launch on a logistics mission in December.

Moreover, and somewhat surprisingly, the Antares launch pad and surrounding facilities at Wallops appear to have escaped major damage from the explosion.

That said, Orbital and NASA have lost an estimated $200 million worth of hardware between the rocket, capsule and cargo. Orbital, which presumably remains contractually obligated to deliver the equivalent mass of the cargo that was lost, carried just $48 million worth of insurance on the mission. 

And while no one can say how long it will take to return Antares to flight, NASA must be prepared for the possibility that the vehicle is out of action for a long time. In that case, the agency’s options are limited: While it likely can shuffle some of the items on the overall cargo manifest to ensure that high-priority items get launched, adding a SpaceX or Progress launch in the next year or two is not realistic.

Still, NASA is prepared for these kinds of contingencies — occasional rocket failures are a fact of life. It was encouraging in that regard that Orbital and NASA officials made crystal clear that they intend to bounce back from this and resume Antares/Cygnus logistics flights to the space station as soon as possible.

Congressional skeptics of NASA’s bid to outsource space station crew and cargo transportation, meanwhile, generally held their fire in the immediate wake of the incident, as was appropriate.

The appearance of the failure’s impact might have been magnified by the dramatic visual spectacle of the event and the relative rarity these days of major mishaps involving Western rockets, even new ones. SpaceX, for example, after failing in the first three launches of its since-discontinued Falcon 1 rocket, has a near-perfect track record in 13 missions of its larger Falcon 9, which debuted in 2010. That’s something few longtime observers of the launch industry would have predicted. 

This is not to downplay the potential financial and planning impacts, but these appear to be manageable. Perhaps more than anything else, the failure is a sobering reminder that despite decades of experience, and with all the advances in design, manufacturing and diagnostic technology that have helped make launchers more reliable, it’s still rocket science.